Le Tour: A Unique Event

It is an event like no other. I’ve covered some big sporting occasions in my time. Three football World Cups, a Champions League Final, a Rugby World Cup, and an Olympics. But once you’ve experienced the Tour de France, there really is nothing else that can quite compare.

For starters, its still a very French experience. Many international sporting events lose their local flavour. Le Tour does not. Daniel Meangaes still owns the PA system with talk of “Champion du Monde”, “Maillot Jaune” and all manner of French advertisements. Each stage town puts on a spread of its finest culinary wares for the members of the Fourth Estate to enjoy daily. No Bochelism Burger or Slimy Hot Dog at Le Tour.

Then there is the logistics. 21 start towns. 21 finish towns. Over three thousand kilometres of roads covered. This year we go from Belgium, through cobbles to the Channel, down through the Jura and Vosges, into Switzerland, skirt along the French Riveira, into the brutal Pyrenees before a mad dash for Paris.

The whole circus packs up at 7pm in a car park in Italy. 14 hours later its alive again. Only this time, it’s on top of the Galibier. Breathtaking.

It’s the greatest stadium you could wish for. Horrendously steep climbs, valley floors, dizzying descent. A natural sporting ampitheatre, of a majesty that simply takes your breath away. The architects of London 2012 or Qatar 2022 can try their best, but there is no arena that comes close to France.

It’s often said that the Tour imitates life. The suffering, elation, pure unbridled emotion. All of humanity laid bare across three weeks. Even the frailties of the human condition are often on show. It’s a war. A war of attirition to drag your body over the climbs, along the flats and through the time trials. A battle between man and the bike. Don’t let the suffering win.

Suffering. It’s a word that comes up a lot. Suffering is the Tour. The Tour is suffering. But what reward lies those who can suffer more than most.

And then the ultimate goal. Paris. Finishing this race is the absolute for any young bike rider. That first sound of the Champs Elyssees crowd. The whirl of the bike on the cobbles. The Eiffel Tower poking out of the metropolis on the horizon. Even as a hanger on to this grand spectacle, that first viewing of the iconic Parisien sight gave me goosebumps. Its a sign. Journeys end. You’ve done it.

Nothing can beat the first time. Simon Gerrans sums it up nicely, that feeling you get the first time into Paris, the next “it’s not quite the same….”. How could it be?

And that’s what I’m thinkingabout at the moment, somewhere over Indonesia, en route to Brussels and Liege. How can this Tour top last years? My debut race. Cav. Gilbert. Thor. Luz Ardiden. Galibier. Schleck. Cadel. Grenoble. Paris. The sequel is never as good.

Or is it?

Reach for the Sky as Wiggins goes for broke

It’s takes a lot for a Brit to forego the chance of Olympic gold medal success. To defend a crown in front of a passionate home crowd on the Velodrome. That’s exactly what Bradley Wiggins has done.

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On Sunday 20th of February 2011, Wiggins was part of a British Quartet that dominated New Zeland in the Teams Pursuit at the Manchester World Cup. At the time, Wiggins, a three time Olympic gold medallist, was on track to defend the teams title in London. But it was to be the last time he stepped onto the boards in competition.

At the time, the talk of a Tour/Track Olympics double was in the air. Glory on the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, and on the pine of East London. But something changed. A perfect storm of circumstance. Now it’s Yellow in Paris that drives Wiggins, rather than Gold in London.

From a surprise fourth place in the 2009 edition of La Grand Boucle, Wiggins crashed back down to Earth in his much hyped Sky Tour debut. The man to win the Tour for Britain. Twenty-Fourth on GC. A performance that cut him man deeply. “The first public failure of my career…..too pompous…..consistently mediocre…..” All these words uttered by Wiggins once the dust settled.

From being a Tour contender to one of the pack, needing to readjust and refocus.

First came a new philosophy within Team Sky. Collective responsibility. Look at all races not just Brad at the Tour. New coaching techniques and personnel. Then came a closer relationship between Track and Road. For Wiggins, this the point where his twin ambitions were supposed to begin. It turns out it’s where they ended.

For all the bullish talk prior to Manchester, it was the last hurrah in the Velodrome. Within four months, Wiggins had podiumed at Paris-Nice and won the Dauphine. Still the talk in British circles was of a triple Gold medal tilt. In reality, Wiggins had become a fully fledged road racer.

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The Tour should have been confirmation of this. In peak physical condition his inexperience in a Grand Tour bunch cost him his collarbone and a place in the world’s biggest bike race. In the end, he sat at home watching a time trial decide the race. What if, what if, what if……

Six weeks later he was on two podiums. Third at La Vuelta. Second in Copenhagen at the World’s Time Trial.

As 2011 became 2012 the decision was formalised. The Track was gone. Focus now would be road, and road alone. Tour de France glory. Then the Olympic Time Trial. Not the double many envisaged two years prior.

Again the form lines speak positively. Paris-Nice victory. Dauphine victory. The double only ever done twice before. Two blokes called Anquetil and Merckx. Add the Romandie jersey to the mix and Wiggins stands alone.

And so to Liege and the Grand Depart. Team Sky are attempting an audacious move. Yellow and Green in Paris. Twin Gold in London.

It’s a high stakes game and they run the risk of losing the lot. The team is there for Wiggins once the roads head skyward, with Froome, Porte and Rogers ready to counter the moves that Evans, Sanchez, Gesink and Nibali through at them. But before that it’s about Cav. Stage wins to grab the green. Knees, Siutsou, Eddy Boss and Eisel in the train for their man. How much of a toll will this take out of the team come the third week? Can Wiggins maintain this exceptional form? Will Porte and Rogers have the energy in the tank to by up there fighting for Bradley come the Pyrenees? Can anyone really take enough time out of him in the mountains and defend it in the final time trial? So many questions. Evans is the only one who looks capable of challenging at this point. His attacks during the Dauphine, especially on the downhill, smack of a rider in decent form but a rider who knows that he must maximise every opportunity. Cadel cannot afford to reach the Chartres time trial with a deficit. Every second counts. No-one knows that more than man who missed the jersey by just twenty three of them in the past.

Cadel knows how to win this bike race. Brad doesn’t. The signs point to a battle royale.

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Wiggins himself, is remarkably laconic about it all. There is a maturity about him as a rider, even if it doesn’t allows come across in his public pronouncements. (See his Romandie presser for more details http://road.cc/content/news/57430-thats-entertainment-bradley-wiggins-reinvents-post-race-press-conference-video )

The window of opportunity is closing. There is no Schleck or Contador to ride away from him in the hills. No super teams ready to dominate. This is his time. There may not be another. It’s all or nothing. The effort it will take to win the Tour has already compromised another track Gold. It may destroy his Time Trial hopes.

But it’s time. Glory in Paris, then a homecoming.

He believes he is ready. His team believes he is ready. Now he just has to prove it.

When Harry Left Danny

The end when it came was swift and delivered in the dead of night. At 3.37am, Tottenham released a short statement confirming the rumours. Redknapp was gone. A decision Chairman Daniel Levy “didn’t take lightly”. A love affair between two vastly different characters was over.

So how did it come to this? Four months ago, Redknapp was a free man, in charge of a team playing sparkling football and ensconsed in third place. He was also the man destined to lead his country into the Euro and beyond. Now Harry heads home to Bournemouth with a cheque amounting to the last year of his contract and his belongings in a cardboard box. England are being Greece under Hodgson, and Spurs are facing a season of Thursday night trips to Turkey and the loss of key players.

Harry famously berated Sky’s Rob Palmer who portrayed him as being a wheelie dealer. In this case, he tried a deal too many. Despite protestations to the contrary, Spurs form disappeared down the gurgler, not when the boss was in court facing Porridge, but when he was fluttering his eyelids and lifting his skirt in the direction of the FA.

All the while, his public statements suggested that it didnt effect the team, yet just days ago, Harry claimed that his contract talks with Levy could destabilise the players? This despite the fact that he already had a year to run.

Redknapp tried to have an each way bet, and ended up tout of the places.

Levy didnt demand a Champions League spot. And theres no doubt there was plenty of misfortune over the manner that fourth spot was tossed away. But his fury at the way a ten point cushion over Arsenal disappeared into another desperate late scramble, whilst playing hard ball over his own future, would have been the final straw.

There are suggestions too that Redknapp had a bonus in his contract for a top four finish, and his priority was ensuring that over striving for third and an automatic spot.

Outside of the club, theres disbelief that Spurs could make this decision. Things are not so clear cut within though. Harry, like many managers, had his issues with players at times, over decisions. Amongst the fans theres universal appreciation for what he did in resurrecting a club that was a shambles. After that though the punters seem to fall into three groups. Pro-Harry, Anti-Harry or a bit of both. I take a position in the latter.

The way he galvanised the team after replacing Juande Ramos was superb. He coaxed performances out of a group that were absent for years, developed Modric into a world class playmaker and released Gareth Bale into the player we now see. The style of football was also, generally, to our liking, despite the odd love of the back-to-front when Crouchie played.

But the cracks appeared over the past two seasons. Odd tactical decisions like switching Bale and Lennon. The reluctance to rotate players, leading to successive mid season fade outs. The inability to make mid game changes to influence a game, the Villa match a prime example when a win would’ve pretty much sealed third and rendered all this redundant. The FA Cup semi final defeat by Chelsea was also a bitter pill.

His relationship with the supporters was often strained by his attitude toward them. At one time berating them as idiots, and constantly harking back to the situation at the club when he arrived. Of course, the team is in better shape than in 2008, but so it should be. That was a false position given the quality of players. Harry inherited the likes of Lennon, Assou-Ekotto, Modric and Bale. And while his wheeler dealer reputation is based on his record, many of his Spurs signings shone briefly before disappearing, the likes of Palacios, Crouch, Pienaar and Bassong. Not to mention the odd short term moves for Saha and Nelsen.

And now he is gone. And with Modric and Van der Vaart unsettled, Adebayor still a City player and Bale in demand, the rebuild may take some time. Theres no football director at Spurs. Levy gave Redknapp autonomy over first team matters.

Who comes in? Moyes, Martinez, AVB and Capello have all been mentioned. Whoever it is, Levy has gambled here. He risks a backlash and ridicule should this go wrong. He’s made some big decisions in the past with mixed success. The populist road (Hoddle, Redknapp), the latest trend model (Santini/Ramos) or the safe option (Jol). This is his biggest yet.

For Harry, there’ll be a job soon no doubt. I’ll have fond memories and we’ll never forget you for what you did; delivering the Champions League anthem to The Lane; for Milan at the San Siro, for Inter, for Wembley trips and for two nil down, three two up at The Emirates.

Harry thank you, but its goodbye. Audere est Facere.

England Expects. Too Much.

Fair to say the Euro 2012 build up as an Englishman has been fairly low key. Low expectations, realism and Jordan Henderson pretty much sum it up.

So its surprised me somewhat to be left feeling a bit down from what, on paper, is a fine result against the French. But after sitting through the most tepid game of the tournament so far that’s exactly how I feel.

Theres no doubt that this is a limited England squad, even more limited with Rooney suspended and Lampard injured. But the paucity of attacking options, the lack of spark and the careless handling of possession left this Pom frustrated.

It was, admittedly, a bright opening with Gerrard and Milner both having good chances before Lescott’s header. The Ox also began brightly, before the game settled into its pattern. The French with the possession, and England dropping deeper and deeper.

The tempo was very slow throughout the match, with the heat clearly playing a part. This surprised me too, as the draw was hardly the best of results for the French, who failed to really penetrate, and lacked a bit of zip and purpose throughout.

Hodgson’s two banks of four succeeded in nullifying most of the opposition threats but at times in the second half, you felt that Danny Wellbeck would require a flare to alert his teammates of his presence, so big was the gap between the midfield and forward line.

So its a point. Probably a good one, but not done with much style. Churlish I know, but despite not having great expectations, I still want England to play well. To come in unburdened by predictions of glory and just play. Organised? Yes. Tough to beat? Undoubtedly. Good to watch. Not on your life.

The group is now wide open after Ukraine’s victory over Sweden. That leaves England requiring to beat either bogey team Sweden, or host Ukraine. And it will require a little bit more adventure than we saw in Donetsk last night.

Tactical Climax at the Euros

It’s become the anoraks footballing pornography. Tactics. Formations. False Nines.  Inverted Wingers. Deep lying Playmakers….no stop it!

There’s been a sudden upswing over the past few years in the interest in how teams set themselves out; how they play; the science behind the structure.  This is a good thing.  For too long football, in my world at least, has been get it wide and put it in.  No more.  Now we are obsessed with Tikka Takka, and pressing, and playing out from the back.  It’s become football porn.  Tactical titillation.

It came to a climax, so to speak, when the team sheet came out for the Spain v Italy Euro 2012 match.  The Italians careering back to the future with a sweeper and two strikers, aimed squarely at negating the Spanish passing game.  As a repost, Vicente Del Bosque decided to do away with the strikers.  6 midfielders – 4 of them pure fantasy players.  4-6-0.  Fabregas a nominal false nine.

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Twitter was abuzz.  This was the tactical climax that the laptop warriors had been straining for, had been waiting years for.  Finally they could put down their dog eared copies of “Inverting the Pyramid”.  This was the moment. Nirvana.

Now we’ve seen this before with varying degrees of success.  Ajax played it in a Champions League match this season, smashing Dynamo Zagreb as the fluidity of the system proved too much.  Of course closer to home, we’ve seen the opposite.  Pim Verbeek pioneered the 4-6-0 in Durban against the Germans, with Richard Garcia perhaps the falsest of false nines in football history.  That system was designed to flood the midfield, restrict the Germans and look for a counter.  Trouble was the Socceroos never kept the ball, played a suicidally high line (who’s idea that was is open to conjecture) and had ageing defenders who were torn apart at will.

The Spanish though, decided that this variant of the system was an attacking measure, aimed at counter acting the Italians traditional fearsome man marking.  But it didn’t quite work.

Again, possession was plentiful, but as had happened recently when Barcelona faced limited but organised opponents, it fell into a heap at the last.  Indeed the presence of two strikers for Italy went some way to disrupting the chain for Spain, with Cassano in particular an irritant.  Italy may have achieved more had his successor as Azzurri infant terrible Mario Balotelli brought anything like his A game.

Time after time though the effort of Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva floundered on the Italian back line marshalled superbly by Daniele De Rossi, an inspirational figure who’s misdemeanour at Germany 2006 seems a lifetime ago.

Normality was somewhat restored in the second half, as natural goalscorers appeared.  Di Natale for Italy, and Torres for Spain.  The Udinese man continues a prolific season.  The Chelsea striker continues his difficult one.  Chances came, chances went.  Honours even, but moral victory for Prandelli’s boys in blue.

So what began as tactical Utopia ended in a rather timid draw.  Spain’s striker-less experiment may have done it’s dash.  The problem with it appears obvious.  In a team stocked with the best of the Madrid and Barca orchestra, the side doesn’t have the lead conductors, Messi and Ronaldo.  Over 100 goals between them, playing in wide attacking roles.  The game is a little easier with those two.

So what do Spain do?  The much talked about “Plan B” that Barca apparently don’t have?  Well that would be Llorente.  A fine footballer, who is wedged into the “Plan B” mould due to his physique.  Or Torres? Improving in the latter part of the season at Chelsea but a shadow of the man who won this tournament 4 years ago.

The fact is Spain miss David Villa enormously, as did Barcelona.  A pure goalscorer. Diminutive, skilful, and a predator.  And a man who fits into the system like a glove. He is the real nine that Spain require.

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It’s interesting to look at the trends of strikers across the tournament.  Lewandowski and Gomez represent classic number 9’s.  Van Persie is central for Holland, but they were a frustrating attacking mix, with Van Persie’s ability to drop deeper or wider and create, nullified by his need to stay central, as Robben wasted opportunities at will.  You can’t help but feel Huntelaar central, playing his natural game would benefit the Dutch, and also release Van Persie into a wider or deeper position where he can wreak havoc.  That would leave Affelay on the chopping block as Robben appears cast in stone on the team sheet.

The Russian Dzagoev is a deeper attacker, a position Wayne Rooney excels in.  Benzema will be the French Nine playing high with a bevy of playmakers behind and wide.

It seems the trend is to have a natural focal point, and thats the key, a player playing his natural game in the 9, and then allow the freedom behind.  Whether that natural game is holding it up, running behind, dropping deep.  The square pegs are getting a workout in the round holes.

Its something Del Bosque and Spain have to consider when they face an Irish side that will surely defend deep and in numbers later this week.  They should prevail, but to win the Euros Spain may need to bring a 9 into 12.

Tour Contenders Narrow to Two

It’s so close you can almost taste it.  July in France.  Le Tour.  Yellow jerseys.  Late nights. Gate and his cheese.  The month of the year when everyone suddenly talks about bikes.

There’s added interest this year of course.  Cadel Evans triumph last year captured the imagination, with over a million Australians watching in the wee hours, all the papers putting a bike rider from Katherine on the front page, and thousands lining the streets of Melbourne to welcome him home.  Add to this Australia’s own team Orica-GreenEDGE, making a Tour debut, and you feel that this will be the biggest one yet from an Aussie perspective.

But on the bike, the race looks more and more likely to come down to a battle between two riders.  Evans goes in as second favourite to Brit Bradley Wiggins, having the season of his life.  Third favourite? At this stage, Daylight.

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Wiggins dominance in 2012 is total.  He took out Paris-Nice in March.  disappeared into training camps, returned in April to dominate the Tour of Romandie.  Took off again to Team Sky’s high altitude camp on the Canary Islands, and has bossed the field in the Dauphine, the classic barometre of Tour form.  Wiggins has looked in control amongst a strong Sky unit on the climbs, and crushed a top quality field in the Time Trial, to take the yellow.

Evans, in contrast, has had a difficult time of things in 2012.  Illness has blighted his campaign after early season success in Corsica at the Criterium International.  He was, by his own admission below par at two of his pet events, Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandie.  But this week Evans has shown that he is on the right track.

Victory on Stage 1, and time taken on the downhills prove that Evans is physically strong, and is mentally fresh.  The time trial performance was not terrible, but suffered in comparison to Wiggins.  There’s room for improvement there.

The other contenders are not faring so well.  Vincenzo Nibali has been touted as a podium shot, but the Italian had a poor Tour of California, and was dropped early on the major climb of the Dauphine.  Major improvement is required.

It’s been a bad few weeks for the experienced riders. Basso blew at the Giro as did Frank Schleck.  Chris Horner lost his California Crown, Dennis Menchov has barely been sighted at the Dauphine and Sammy Sanchez crashed and struggled on.  Vuelta Champ Cobo also pulled the pin early.  Over at The Shack, Andreas Kloden hasn’t ridden much and at Omega-Pharma Levi Leipheimer is on the comeback path from a broken leg.

Things look brighter amongst the next generation.  Robert Gesink produced a stellar ride on Mount Baldy to claim the California crown, and his Rabobank team boast two more young guns in Bauke Mollema and the hugely impressive Wilco Kelderman.  Gesink was a major let down in last years Tour suffering from injury and mental fatigue, but the signs are, the young Dutchman is ready to take the next step.

Over at Lotto-Belisol, there’s quiet optimism over the form of Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who has been in the lead group at the Dauphine all week.  The Belgian was a casualty of the early carnage last year but looks ready to take a top 5 spot.

And then there’s Andy. Andy Schleck should be a favourite.  The, now, 2010 Tour winner, and multiple runner up is in the prime of his career, let things at Radioshack are not good.  There talk all year long has been of a fall out between the Schlecks and the man expected to take them to the next level, new DS Johan Bruyneel.  Bruyneel himself has thrown out various incendiary comments to the media about the Schlecks.  Whether these were designed to motivate them or not, the effect has been disasterous.

Andy’s form is atrocious.  He has abandoned three of his nine races this season, and failed to crack the top hundred during his seven active stages of the Dauphine.  There was a crash and talk of a knee problem but all is not well in the Schleck camp.

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While physical ailments are the public excuse, it appears that its a fragile mind rather than body that is taking it’s toll on Andy.  From the very public criticism of his time trialling from all and sundry, to Bruyneel’s barbs, to the idea of tackling the Tour without his favourite DS Kim Andersen in the car, Andy appears to be falling apart mentally.  As exhilarating a climber as there is anywhere, Schleck version 2012, is a shadow of his former self.

There are even suggestions that Radioshack will head to the Tour without the brothers who, essentially, created the team.  Unthinkable a few months ago, with just three weeks to go, it seems very possible that Bruyneel will build his GC team around Kloden, Horner and Fuglsang. Personally I think the Schlecks will start in Liege, but it would be a miracle to see either on the podium in Paris.  whatever happens over the next 3 weeks, I’m expecting a messy divorce later this year.

Which brings us back to the start.  Evans versus Wiggins.  BMC versus Sky.  Australia versus Britain.  Wiggins is in the form to win the Tour.  Evans probably isn’t.  But where will each rider be in 5 weeks?  Can Wiggo hold this phenomenal form right through to Paris?  We know that Evans can, and will build over the next few weeks.

The course suits both in a way.  Wiggins will take big time on Cadel in the TT’s, but there are enough short steep finishes, and dizzying descents for Evans to claim time, much as he did in last years race and this week’s Dauphine.

And then there are the teams.  Team Sky have resembled US Postal this week with a crushing display of strength at the head of the peloton.  But next month they may be compromised by the inclusion of Mark Cavendish.  Expect Cav and Bernie Eisel to join the core of the Dauphine squad.  This is a complication BMC don’t have, now that Thor Hushovd has ruled himself out of the race.  BMC, Phillippe Gilbert and all, will ride for Evans 100%.

Whatever happens, the emergence of Wiggins as favourite will change the dynamic of the race.  Every other team have to attack if they want to win the race.  If it comes down to the final Time Trial, then Wiggins will take the crown.  It promises to be an exhilarating three weeks.