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COMPETITION: Who will win the Vuelta a España and why do you care?

OK, let’s take the last part first. I’m a little angry that you even asked. In fact, step right back and get out. Overlooked, barely on TV, only vaguely on the internet, this is the grand tour that’s always third in the pecking order to the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. The English-speaking world is slow to tune in, and for no good reason. But this year it is set up to be the GREATEST cycling stage race of all time. And so should it be. In the modern cycling calendar all the pro tour teams want a piece of it. It has the same set of illustrious winners – Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, etc. – and there’s no gap where Lance Armstrong won it, because the best he could do was fourth (subsequently voided). And for those who watched the Giro outperform the Tour this year in terms of competition at the top and a changing leaderboard right at the death, you can expect even more from the ‘Tour of Spain’.

Arguably the best three riders in the world at the moment are all racing: Britain’s-slash-Kenya’s-slash-South Africa’s Chris Froome, Colombian Nairo Quintana and two-times previous winner Alberto Contador of Spain. Of recent grand tour winners only this year’s Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali will not be racing. See the other favourites at the bottom
Chris Froome in the EurotunnelCritérium du Dauphiné 2014 - Etape 6 - Alberto Contador

Competition

So because it is likely to be the stage race of the year we have a competition going with a massive prize: the four Bloomsbury cycling books shown in the thumbnails below.

Merckx 69

Merckx 69

Bike Fit

Bike Fit

Coppi

Coppi

The Great British Road Rides Guide

The Great British Road Rides Guide

 

How to enter

All you have to do is enter a fantasy team at the road.cc Fantasy Cycling competition online and then enter our mini league called ‘A Bloomsbury Cycling Whitewash’. It’s not as hard as it sounds. You have to sign up to road.cc first and come up with a password, but you don’t have to pay any money.

Having signed up and named your team, you go to the ‘Pick team’ tab and choose nine riders for the first stage with a fixed budget of 160 points and riders of various point-costs. Every day before the next stage begins you can change two riders. However if you leave your team as is, you carry over these two unused transfers to the next day, so you would have four to transfer after one day, or six after three days unused, etc.

To enter our league click on the ‘Leagues’ tab and you’ll see ‘A Bloomsbury Cycling Whitewash’ near the top. Enter a bunch of other leagues too, why not. Ours will be the simplest to win though, as you are probably the only person reading this.

How to choose your riders

You can score a lot of points in a lot of ways: placings in general classification, points classification, young rider, king of the mountains, the top 20 home in any stage, the intermediate sprints, the mountain points, etcetera. But you’ll not win anything with kids, or, that is, the majority of the domestiques who will be riding purely to get their team leaders into the top places, then dropping back into obscurity, scoring you nothing.

In light of which it makes sense to put two of the very cheapest riders in your team, so that you can afford seven winning riders.

Which riders are best for which stages?

It’s important to distinguish between the various types of race. The flat stages will be won by the sprinters (designated by green ‘PC’ symbols next to them), the mountain stages by the best all-rounders or climbers, the medium mountain stages can be won by anyone, especially towards the end of the competition, and the time trials will be won by Tony Martin. The first stage is a short team time trial. I have no idea who will win this, but Astana, Orica-GreenEDGE and Team Sky look … as good as any.

There are a few good websites to go to work out who those in the know think will win each day. The website oddschecker compiles all the betting odds and the website c-cycling.com has brilliant previews every morning before the race (which seem to then massively influence the oddschecker odds).

How to follow the Vuelta online

Because of the British riders, there will be good articles in the usual online newspapers: Telegraph, Guardian, etc. The Guardian had no minute-by-minute last year for the Vuelta, but might this year.

Steephill.tv is the best for complete coverage of all kinds, and it links to the c-cycling preview every morning when this is up.

Road Cycling UK‘s site I have to plug too as they’ve just finished making the brilliant Infographic Guide to Cycling with us. But yes, very good Vuelta content up already with an article on who will win king of the mountains.

The official Vuelta a España website was a bit crap last year if I’m honest, but part of that is because the Tour de France coverage is so good on the internet that anything else seems a come down.

Favourites

Chris Froome Sky’s big hope. He was disappointed to drop out early of this year’s Tour de France having won it last year. And he’ll be keen to show he is no grand tour one-shot. Having won the Critérium du Dauphiné (points competition) before the Tour, and having had time to recover from the falls that knocked him out of the Tour, he should be in good form. Notably he was second in the 2011 Vuelta.

Nairo Quintana This year’s winner of the Giro d’Italia and in a very strong Movistar team along with past Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain. He is only 24 but looks impossible to beat in the mountains when on form.

Alejandro Valverde As mentioned above he’s won this thing before (2009) and been on the final podium on four other occasions, last year coming third, only 1 minute and 36 seconds from the red jersey. He was fourth in the Tour this year too, so at 34 years old, and on home soil, Valverde is still very much a contender.

Alberto Contador The other big-name Spaniard is considered by many to still be the best cyclist out there. Despite having two grand tours stripped from him, he has legitimately won all three big grand tours, and five in total not counting the two that were nixed. The doping conviction (an ‘accidental ingestion of the banned doping product Clenbuterol’ in very small amounts) may not make him a popular figure with everyone, but his combative style and constant mountain attacks make him, at worst, an exciting villain.

Chris Horner Let’s not forget the American who won the Vuelta last year. Can he do it again? No way, he’s 42. Send him out to pasture. (Still, let’s hope he does.)

Cadel Evans The Aussie battler – sorry, love that cliché – is also on the northern side of 35, but the former Tour and Giro winner has maintained some decent form. He hasn’t won anything too major recently but was third in the Giro d’Italia last year and beat a decent field to win the Giro del Trentino in April.

Joaquim Rodríguez The Spaniard they call ‘Purito’ – for the dubious honour of being one of few riders not to dope – is in the prime of his career, but risks never achieving any major honours. This has to be his Vuelta if he’s to push himself above Contador and Valverde in Spanish hearts. Highly rated, he’s been on the final podium in all three grand tours without ever being more than a bridesmaid. Coming second in last year’s World Championship is the icing that didn’t quite make it onto the cake.

Fabio Aru Perhaps more an outside bet, the Astana rider is second fiddle to his team-mate Nibali and didn’t ride in the Tour de France this year, but he did finish third in this year’s Giro when free from the shackles. The Italian climber seems indefatigable in every stage. His team-mate Tanel Kangert will help Astana have a good shot at Stage 1, the team time trial (which they won at this year’s Giro).

Rigoberto Uran My personal favourite, the Colombian who left Sky last year for Omega Pharma-Quick Step, has come second in the Giro for two years running, and was unlucky not to win it this year. Another young gun like Aru and Quintana who will likely be a big name for some years to come.

Tony Martin OK, he won’t win the Vuelta, but he is so dominate in time trials he deserves a mention. The German is a shoo-in for Stage 10.

Peter Sagan He cruised to the green jersey of points victory in the Tour this year, without winning a single stage, and is likely to do the same here. He can sprint, he can handle a mountain or two, and he’s a smart cookie, always managing to get himself in the right place for the finish. The sprinters: Bouhanni, Ferrari, Degenkolb, Boonen, etc. may run Sagan close, or a top GC rider may win the points competition with so many to compete against, but my idiotic money is on Sagan.
Nairo Quintana Giro 2014

USA to Win the World Cup: Interview with ‘defenceman’ Robert Andrew Powell

Clint_Dempsey_USA_trainingCould the US be the surprise package to win the World Cup? Answer: not at all. But on the eve of the greatest show not on ice, I found the best and only man to suggest otherwise, author Robert Andrew Powell. This blog is not on that though, it’s a shameless headline to drag in your now irate eyeballs. Bear with me.

My sports book of last year, This Love Is Not for Cowards, happens to be published by Bloomsbury. Pure coincidence, and I assure you I had zero to nothing to do with it, as our counterparts at Bloomsbury USA published it. It’s one of those genres US writers do so well: journalistic non-fiction. Think Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak on the word-burgling nerd-world of competitive Scrabble. Here Powell moves to the murder capital of Mexico to follow a football team. It is absolutely brilliant, and if I can recommend just one book in my hyperbolic life, today it is this one. If you have a gratuitous interest in cartel violence, a love of Mexican football or you are just highly suggestible, read it.

Having finished it I struck up a little email conflab with the author, shamefully confessing from the off that I had started it because Breaking Bad had ended and I needed a Mexican-cartel fix.

thisLOVEcoverCiudad Juárez is basically the other half of the Texan city of El Paso (or vice versa), but sitting on the southern side of the border in Chihuahua, Mexico. In 2008 the city’s football team the Indios rose to the Primera, Mexico’s top league. For such a small team, from such a crime-ravaged city, their place was never going to last. The fans’ faith held them in it a while, and Powell was there to track their last 12 months in the big time. I’ve been describing it to people as the opposite of a sports movie, instead of the underdog fighting hard, appearing as if they’re going to lose, then miraculously winning it all, the team just loses. I asked Powell if that was how he saw it:

RAPRobert Andrew Powell: I would have been happy to follow the standard sports movie script. At one point, early on, I was like, ‘Can you guys please start winning? For me and my little book project here? Please?’ But it didn’t take too long for me to recognise that the team and its losing streak formed an almost perfect metaphor for the city at large. The Indios players were lesser talents cast off from better teams. They lost and lost. But every day they still stepped onto the field and kept fighting for the team, the city and for their own personal pride. Ciudad Juárez at the time was so very horribly violent, and it was somehow getting worse, yet most people in the city got up in the morning and went to work and tried their best to live a normal life. As a fan, I would have enjoyed it tremendously if the Indios had strung together some wins and stayed in Mexico’s top league. But that isn’t how life generally works. Miracles are rare. That’s why we celebrate them, and remember them. The Indios, when I embedded with them, were real and human. They struggled, as most of us do. And that honourable struggle came to be what I loved most about them.

Drug-War_Related_Murders_in_Mexico_2006-2011I guess the most obvious questions relate to ‘what happened next’: for you, the Indios, the players and Juárez. The Indios appear to have ‘dissolved’ according to Wikipedia after ‘financial problems’. Do you know any more on this? Have the fans found a suitable new object for their affections? Are you in touch at all with the old Karteleros (the Indios’ ultra fans)? Have you been back? How is Juárez without the Indios? How are those ex-Indios players getting on?

The team suffered relegation while I was there. Not much more than a year later, they folded altogether. Without TV revenue and with attendance way down – and with the murder rate still sky high – owner Francisco Ibarra couldn’t keep the team afloat. He’d told me he would never, ever sell the team. Yet he did sell, in the end.

The players scattered across Mexico. Marco Vidal, the American midfielder who was a central character in the book, ended up back in the top league with a team called Pachuca. But he eventually dropped back down to the minors, where he remains. He’s 28 years old now. I doubt he’ll climb back up. The allegiances of fans in Juárez drifted to other teams, like Chivas in Guadalajara and Pumas in Mexico City.

640px-Ciudad_juarez_streetTwo years after the Indios folded, a replacement team finally stepped forward to represent the city. This new team, also called the Indios – traditionally every sports team in Juárez is called the Indios – are sponsored by the local university, and play at the same stadium. But in the lowest minor league. Attendance is light. The quality of play is way, way down. The team is nowhere close to ever returning Juárez to the top league.

I remain in close contact with a lot of people from the book. From players like Marco to the Ibarras to many of the fans who followed the team when I was there. I’ve gone back to the border frequently, most recently just a few weeks ago. Juárez is quite different these days. The murder rate – which is still high – has dropped significantly from the eye-popping numbers of 2010. Many more bars and restaurants light up the night, and people feel a lot more comfortable going out. It’s not like the city’s problems have been solved, though. Corruption remains endemic. And thousands and thousands of murders from the past six-plus years remain unsolved. These murders were never even investigated, really. The ghosts of the dead haunt the city. One can’t pretend the killing never happened, or is just some vague memory from the past.

Drug_Money_and_weapons_seized_by_the_Mexican_Police_and_the_DEA_2007Armada-de-mexico-300x350Were you worried at all in writing the book that you were endangering the lives of any of the people you described? Especially when they were discussing cartel boss J.L.?

JavierTorres-Felix

I never felt I would endanger anyone with my book. Maybe that’s naive of me. I strive to ground my work in real names and place and details. For the record, nobody seems to have been hurt.

And, hey, I finally finished Breaking Bad myself just last week! Walt dies. :)

Nice spoiler. Of Breaking Bad, what did you think of the depiction of El Paso? The worst nightmare of the DEA’s Hank …

 

640px-Aaron_Paul_Breaking_Bad_panel_at_2012_Comic-Con_(2)El Paso would have been the place for Hank to advance his career. For obvious reasons. As far as Marie’s description of El Paso as ‘an armpit’, well … Albuquerque isn’t all that different. Both cities are dusty, isolated and relatively small. Albuquerque is close to the beautiful little town of Santa Fe, which is nice. But I’d rather live in El Paso, personally. It’s close to a whole other country.

The book’s title, This Love Is Not for Cowards, is great. Did you have any working titles that didn’t make the cut?

640px-Puente_Negro_Ciudad_JuarezThe original title was On the Line, which worked in about eight different ways. The US Border Patrol uses ‘the Line’ to describe the international border. The Juárez cartel is known locally as La Línea. Marco Vidal, when asked early in the book about the high stakes of the upcoming season, says ‘our lives are on the line’. That was my alternate, more poetic title for a while, Our Lives Are On the Line. But it turns out that way too many stories about the border are entitled ‘On the Line’. The very day I handed in the final draft of the book, the New York Times Magazine put ‘Life on the Line’ over a long cover story about Juárez and El Paso. We had to come up with something else.

My editor suggested Bordertown, which I hated. What, are we talking about Detroit here? The Bordertown title stuck around long enough to appear on some early cover mock-ups, to my dismay. Time was running out, and I was frantic that I’d not find a better option when Saul Luna, one of the Karteleros in the book, suggested the title we went with. Which turned out to be perfect.

What are you working on now? I see you have a book just out-ish about running a marathon, and that it was a long time coming. You must be pleased.

I just released Running Away, a memoir about marathoning and my father and divorce and a bunch of other hopefully interesting things. I actually wrote the memoir before I moved to Juárez, but it’s taken until now to get it published. Beyond that, I’ve been working for a while on what I hope will become a book set in Miami, and more specifically on a golf course. My first three books involved American football, soccer and running. Now golf. I’m working my way through all the sports, I guess. Kind of like a literary decathlete.

Both USA and Mexico are in the World Cup, how do you fancy their respective chances? Is the competition at all in the media in the US?

I’m a big fan of the US Men’s National Team, as we call them. A real big fan. Perhaps so much a fan that my logic is clouded. I’m approaching the tournament in Brazil with guarded optimism. I can see us getting out of our group, which is a killer – Portugal, Germany and Ghana (a country that eliminated us from the previous two World Cups). We also have the toughest travel itinerary of any team in the tournament. Yet, we stunned Portugal in Korea in 2002. We beat Germany in a friendly last summer, and our coach is of course a German who’s won the cup himself. So, yeah, I’ve decided to feel good about our chances. If I had to bet, though. If you forced me to bet, I’d wager we lose all three games and finish in dead last place.

640px-Mexico_vs_Senegal_@_London_2012_-6Mexico won’t have it easy in Brazil, either, not with the home team in its group. Mexico barely squeaked into the finals, too. Yet they have a far greater chance of advancing out of the group stage than the US. I want them to lose, though. Badly. To any fan of the US, Mexico is the enemy.

Yes I know how hard it was for Mexico because their final play-off was against my little country, New Zealand. We were the only undefeated team at the last (our second ever) World Cup, with three draws, and I can only wish the same for the US. Oddly I am supporting England, being resident and a dreadful Anglophile, but also Uruguay, as a Liverpool and Luis Suárez fan.

I’ve got Colombia as my backup squad to cheer for. To win I’m standing with the favourite. Brazil all the way. To me, a Brazil triumph is a mortal lock, absolutely certain. I’ve never been more confident about an outcome.

The World Cup has England giddy all over again. Who are the players to look out for on the US (Men’s National) Team? Is Donovan still the star, or are there more impressive young-bloods? The MLS is broadcast here, but I’ve never heard many people talking about it, beyond the news media’s obsession with Beckham, when he was with LA Galaxy and now with his new franchise. As a Miamian, were you a Fusion fan, and now ready to transfer your patronage to Beckham’s little startup?

1024px-Michael_Bradley_shooting_vs_HondurasThe clear current star of the US team is a midfielder named Michael Bradley. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. If not, well, then that says everything about the American squad. Our captain, Clint Dempsey, isn’t nearly as sharp as back when he played for Fulham. And Donovan? Man. As I type this, he’s in real danger of not making the final roster cut for Brazil. He’s been overweight and off his game. Our training camp is essentially a game of Survivor. Seven players currently in camp will be voted off the team before the plane lifts off for Brazil.

The possibility of Miami Beckham United FC or whatever they’re going to call it fascinates me. I loved his big announcement that he’d decided to place his expansion team in Miami. Like, what other American city was he going to choose? Indianapolis? St Louis? Of course he was going to pick Miami. Whether Miami will support him is a real question. This city bows to celebrity star-power, but Miamians are sophisticated soccer fans. Top teams, both club and international, come through here all the time. (Prior to the World Cup, England will be in Miami for tune-up games against Ecuador and Honduras. Ghana and South Korea plan to play a game here, too.) The World Cup will be broadcast into every restaurant in town, every day. Lunch hours will be extended all month long, and the whole city will follow the tournament closely. I’ve long felt that the Fusion failed here in large part because the team’s quality of play – and the quality of the league – was simply substandard. MLS is a minor league.

(Not to piss on MLS. I like the league for what it is. I’ve been to a few Seattle Sounders games, in Seattle, and have marvelled at the support that city gives its team. The games I watched were sell-outs, and it was a ton of fun to stand with the supporters, who are sophisticated soccer fans in their own right.)David_Beckham_2012

Then there’s the whole issue of Beckham. He and his people boast that a team in Miami will be an extension of his brand, his soccer franchise to go along with his Haig Club whiskey and his Instinct cologne for men and his H&M underwear line. That’s all good for his portfolio, but I’ve started to wonder what would happen if he’s hit by a bus. Or if, say, perhaps, he gets caught blowing rails of cocaine in the boardroom of a Premier League club. Just to say. Take away Beckham, talk merely about a MLS team coming here, and I don’t think Miami would have much interest.

Finally, do you ever call the game ‘football’? Is it a bit pretentious in the States to do so? Using the word ‘soccer’ gets me mocked in Britain (in New Zealand, rugby is the only ‘football’), and they love to laugh at the US terminology used in the game. My favourite was your word ‘defenceman’ in the book for a defender. I have amused a few Britons passing this one on. Do you have any other humorous US soccer terminology for us to have a chuckle at?

It’s becoming more and more common for the game in the States to be called football. The cool kids call it football, as do I about half the time. It depends who I’m talking to. It can get confusing, like trying to figure out what kind of handshake you’re supposed to give a guy. I have no problem at all with the term soccer, nor with any Brits making fun of Americans for using it. It’s who we are, it’s what we play. As for ‘defensemen’: that was a total mistake! Nobody in North America uses that term! It comes from ice hockey, a sport I played competitively through university. I slipped it into the book accidentally, reflexively, never noticing until someone pointed out my mistake after publication. I switched it back to ‘defender’ in the paperback, my cheeks red with shame.

A pity to change the word, I think. It’s part of the colour that makes the book: that alternate-universe thing that is ‘soccer’ from a US perspective. Ultimately of course it is the human story, and the act of living for the Juarenses amid so much tragedy, rather than the sport, that makes This Love Is Not for Cowards so compelling. I can only recommend it, and if you won’t buy it, can I at least lend you my copy?thisLOVEcover

Who to back in the 2013 Tour de France no. 1: USA

I gave a Brito-centric guide to blind-eyed patriotism for the Giro d’Italia, but will spread my net a little wider for the Tour de France. Here’s who to back from all the interloping English-speaking nations. First up …

Yew-Essay! Yew-Essay!

You don’t often get to pity Americans. But after the epic Oprah-deploying conclusion to the Lance Armstrong saga, it must be difficult for US cycling fans to really get behind the sport, and I can’t help but pull a handkerchief from my waistcoat pocket and dab at their little eyes. Poor devils. No one does patriotism like Americans, oh-say-can-you-seeing at the bling-spangled roaming of buffalos and all that. I for one would hate to see such things doused by Lance and his beady-eyed self-serving. So puff out your chests, USA-ers, and slap a hand on that heart. Here’s who you can legitimately get excited about at this year’s Tour. They represent only three pro teams, the first two of which being true apple-pie-twirlin’ US teams:

from BMC Racing Team (the manufacturer is Swiss, ignore that)

Tejay van Garderen (aged 24) is the BIG American hope. He is second only to Cadel Evans in BMC, but if he starts faring better than Evans he could easily be moved to the number one slot. Van Garderen won the young rider (white) jersey at last year’s Tour and placed fifth in the general classification. He hasn’t started brilliantly, but then who has? Like the rest of the top 93 he is only 1 second off the yellow jersey, so everything will change quickly. He’s also up for the white jersey again this year, and probably not a bad bet. Young in the Tour is anyone under 26. This year Tejay has been in the front pack for everything he’s entered: first in the Tour of California, third in the Criterium, fourth in Paris–Nice. This is your man.

Brent Bookwalter (aged 29) is not just at BMC because of his Dickensian-sounding name. (I call him Bent Brookwater, and chortle.) Bookwalter has had a good year, with a string of second placings: in both the US road race and time trial championships, and in the Tour of Qatar. His time-trialling skills will be key in Stage 4 for the team time trial if Evans and van Garderen want to stay high up the grid. He’s a domestique, but a top one, in a team of powerful domesticity, if that’s the word, and it isn’t.

from Garmin-Sharp, in order of importance

Andrew Talansky (aged 24) is a major figure for Garmin among some highfalutin names (Ryder Hesjedal, David Millar, Daniel Martin and Giro-surprise-star Ramunas Navardauskas) and in the one-second-behind group after the first two stages. Not faring as well as his top team-mates thus far, he is still a definite name-in-the-hat for the young rider cardigan, and is likely to rise. He placed second overall in the 2013 Paris–Nice with victory in the semi-mountainous Stage 3 with a sprint finish, third place in Stage 5 with a summit finish and second place in the individual time trial of Stage 7, showing real GC versatility.

Christian Vandevelde (aged 37) is an older gentleman these days, but still sitting second of the Garmin riders (in 36th) behind 35-year-old David Millar (currently third overall). He is considered the man responsible for dragging Ryder Hesjedal into the winning pink jersey of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Coming back from a broken foot earlier in the year, he’s looking good. And I didn’t even mention the doping ban.

Thomas Danielson (aged 34) is the mountains man of the team and is still with the peloton, 1 second off the yellow jersey (but in 84th). He too is just off a doping ban, but it can’t have helped being labelled ‘the next Lance Armstrong’. It’s a while since he won a race but Danielson is a steady competitor in many of the minor races, and was part of Garmin’s team-time-trial-winning team of 2011 Tour. What do I know? He might just win the whole shebang and make us all look stupid.

from Cannondale (and though an Italian team, the sponsor is US bike manufacturer Cannondale)

Ted King (aged 30, which in bike-years is the prime.) He’s a domestique for Cannondale bigshot Peter Sagan, and is sitting almost last in the GC after Stage 2, suggesting either he’s doing his job well of working the legs to make it easy for Sagan early on then dropping back, or he was in the big crash at the end of Stage 1 (though he wasn’t named in this). Come on Teddy Longlegs! … No?

Giro d’Italia, keeping Italy British

Italy’s great cycling stage-race is well under way. Where have you been? Well, if you want to be a flag-draped rose-nosed idiot-patriot, like me,* during the running of this year’s Giro d’Italia, allez-ing Wiggo and his confrères, drunkenly singing barmy-vindaloo-army songs at your television (or minute-by-minute commentary), who exactly should you be cheering? That I will tell you.

<Shuffles through printouts like truffle pig> Hmm. It turns out there are only six British riders, and of course a British team in Sky Procycling. You know these guys, and if you don’t (1) for shame; and (2) me too! So here’s a little recap on the who and how many palmares they are draped in like little caesars on push bikes.

  • Bradley Wiggins of Sky Procycling. Yawn. We all know this 33-year-old superb (Belgian-born) Briton. He won the Tour of France last year, and didn’t he win the entire Olympics as well? That he did. As I type he is sitting 6th in the GC of the Giro. Moving swiftly on.
  • Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Yeah yeah, the Manx Merckx. Cav hasn’t had quite the recent glory of Wig, but the 27-year-old’s achievements are impressive. No one has won as many mass-start stages in the history of the Tour de France. He won the Milan–San Remo in 2009. And in 2010 he took the green jersey (points classification) in the other of the three Grand Tours (along with the Giro and the TdF), the Vuelta a España – a feat he repeated at the Tour de France in 2011. Having won the Tour of Qatar earlier in the year, he barnstormed the first race in the current Giro, winning it, but has been flagging since [doubtless this will be incorrect at the point I hit UPLOAD … aarrgh he just won stage 6, blogfail]. He’ll be looking to prove his place as his sprint-specialising team’s number one. Andiamo Cavo!
  • Alex Dowsett of Movistar Team. Like Cav, Dowsett has recently defected from Sky to be a bigger fish in a … differently shaped? … pond. The 24-year-old haemophiliac is currently the British time-trial champion (and has been for two years). He missed the classics last year with a spifflicated elbow, but is now back and burning serious rubber. Like Cav he’s had one good run so far in the Giro, the stage 2 team time trial, when, with still-high-flying team-mates Benat Intxuasti and Giovanni Visconti, Movistar rolled in 9 seconds behind stage winners Sky. His role is more as a team player for Movistar, and is not in contention for honours.
  • Adam Blythe of BMC Racing. At 23 years old, Blythe is looking to really move beyond promising youngster, and seems to be managing it. In 2010 he won the 2.1 event (i.e. the equivalent in UCI’s ranking as the Tour of Britain) the Circuit Franco-Belge, and was fourth this year in the Tour of Qatar (which Cav won). So far in the Giro, he’s had the one great race, coming 7th in stage 1, the one Cav won. Significantly he beat BMC’s big gun Cadel Evans. Now however he is near the very back of the pack, almost 50 minutes behind off leader Luca Paolini. Presumably because his role is, like Dowsett, as a domestique for his team. But what do I know.
  • Steve Cummings of BMC Racing. Team-mates with Blythe and the mighty Cadel Evans, Cummings is an older hand at 33 years old. Like Dowsett he is reappearing in 2013 after much skeletal mangling: his pelvis and wrist from the Tours of the Algarve and the Basque Country respectively. He has come 2nd in the Tour of Britain twice (2008 and 2011) and his greatest achievements are probably his tricolor of non-road race medals: the bronze in the individual pursuit at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the gold in the team pursuit at the same games, and the silver at the 2004 Olympics for team pursuit. Again, he’s at the rear of the field and presumably working as a slipstream-sweeper for Evans.
  • David Millar of Garmin Sharp. The even older hand at 36 years old, Millar has done it all, been banned for it, and come back again. He’s the only British rider to have worn the leader jersey in all three Grand Tours, including of course the fabled pink number of the Giro. He is the most interesting of the six as evidenced by his (non-Bloomsbury!) autobiography Racing through the Dark, and by the fact I missed him out on the first version of this blog (pointed out on the Guardian minute-by-minute commentary to my colossal shame). Millar also broke a bone last year (collarbone) and is also currently malingering at the very back end of the GC.

Interestingly there is (and perhaps can be?) only one Brit in the Sky team, namely Wiggins. And in fact if you really want to be a daft patriot, there are few very fine Johnny Foreigners in the Sky team you can squeak under your nationalistic-fervour blanket. The two I would suggest you jump toot sweet on the bandwagon of are the Colombians: Sergio Henao (age 25) and Rigoberto Urán (26). After stage 5, Urán was sitting in 2nd place and Henao in 8th. They are both hot dogs on the climbs and the mountains await us in today’s stage 7.

The Colombian equivalent of vindaloo? The ajiaco. Thank you Siri.

Maglia Rosa
*I am, like Wiggo, a plastic Briton, and will take my jingoism from country to country as I please, just you try and stop me.

Sport Is Bad for You

The legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics some have hoped aloud is that more of us, still all geed up and whooping, will take part in sport. When I say ‘us’ imagine instead the unspoken target: some pre-teen lazybones hunched over her smartphone. Suddenly she’s shot-putting her pillowcase of junk food out the window and joining squadrons of her kind in the streets, hurdling bins, moonwalking like dressage horses, going all Beth Tweddle on lamp-posts. Healthiness being the age’s religion, this is seen as a good thing. Sport is good for you. It makes you a fitter biomechanical machine, and a fitter body is happier, lives longer and, though I have gone too far already, contributes more to society. Here I am at a sports publisher, and such a groundswell of interest in sport should have me licking my chops – moo-ha-ha! Allow me instead to pooh-pooh.

But why? Why emit a sales-sapping grump of a blog? Am I so cynical, so sour of puss, so easily prepared to kill joy and rain on the parade of something community-spirited and optimistic, something right-headed and good. I would hope so, yes.

And now I hold up exhibit A, my left ring finger in a splint. This is what sport has done to me. A detached tendon suffered while keeping goal in five-a-side football. Do not, I suggest, try to block a cannonball using your ring finger like a pool cue, tip first. The digit has contracted the deformity known as mallet finger and is now permanently bent at the top joint. It may never fully heal, and in the meanwhile I am forced to wear my plastic finger hat of shame – for weeks.

My question is this: In the light of such a catastrophe, how can anyone of passing sanity suggest that sport is good for you?

Like most people involved in such things I have an atlas of injury remnants across my body: from bone bruises and dicky joints to multiply shucked toenails. We are not alone. Sport leads to a continuous barrage of impacts, crunches, wrenches and body damage. They don’t call them tennis elbows nor swimmer’s shoulders for nothing. One of the Olympic equestrian team was discussing how commonly they break fingers after being thrown. A recent crash in the Tour de France was called the Massacre at Metz for the mangled piles of bodies and bikes it left behind, all their skimpy little bike vests in tatters, with gravel-rash oozing horribly through the holes. None of this is strictly speaking good for you, is it. And I suspect it is only the very luckiest of sportspersons who will not wear the brunt of some injury or other to the grave.

Sport is bad for you. So should we wish it upon pubescent slobs and those less disposed towards physical movement? I don’t know. The only reason I can imagine, and probably the real impetus behind our participation anyway, is – no not self-esteem, goal-orientation, team-cooperative-learning-enhancement or some other policy-speak codswallop – fun. Sport is fun. Play it if you want. Unfortunately I will continue to.

I could break your leg, Nadal, just like THAT

For grisly close-ups of the Massacre at Metz see the brilliant and otherwise pretty Allez Wiggo!

The Rocky of Five-a-Side Goalkeeping

I became a five-a-side goalkeeper for the usual reason – sloth. Five minutes into any game, wheezing, glossy, highlighter-pink, I would sub myself into goal to grab a breather. Some other slob would soon come in and replace me, but five desperate minutes later, having chased the ball around dutifully like an aging Labrador, I would limp back into the safety of the goal area. With the back of a downcast head heaving gasped wordless lungfuls at my replacement, I would, more instructively, indicate with a finger the universal signage for I-am-dying-please-allow-me-this-one-favour. Over the years, however, something transpired. I will be 40 in 2013 and perhaps in sport-years an old dog. But learnt I have.

I played football, or soccer as we ignorantly called it, for the first 17 years of life, representing my New Zealand province up to under-18 level. The fact that barely 11 under-18s played football in North Otago helped enormously. I was also the only left-footed player so a shoo-in for the larboard wing. But as the full blast of adolescence raged through my bloodstream, all nonconformist radical (with football inappropriate haircut), I packed it in. Another 17 years passed, and the chance arose to play ‘indoor soccer’ at work. Brilliant I thought. I will be great again. I will hot-knife through these rugby-addled fools like butter. Running onto the pitch, the ball rolled in my direction. Here was my moment. I visualized the sinuous run upfield, drifting, jinking, feigning. Moving to trap the ball, I instead stood on the front of it and face-planted into the Astroturf. My 17-year-old body had deserted me. I looked down in dismay: When had I become so bell-shaped, so ambling?

But I kept at it, and, moving to Britain, played more and more. My stints in goal grew longer. Yet I still saw these as time-outs, a less boring subs’ bench. In my head I was a winger, a glory-hound glory-bound. Besides, others were better than me in goal … not that I was that bad.

One team in an annual company-wide tournament last year needed a goalie. I had been playing a bit more goal for my five-a-side league team, Red Star White City, who were at the time bottom of the bottom division in the BBC league. So I volunteered. The tournament was catalytic to a realisation. We won our group, and I was getting a lot of praise for my keepering. We won our quarter final. (Push play on ‘Eye of the Tiger’.) We brick-bottled it in the semi and exited. But throughout I was diving, rushing, making myself big, cutting down the angles, sticking a leg out. We were drawing a crowd, and I was the instigator of a pleasing percentage of the oohs and applause. Perhaps – I blinked, shuddering – I was actually better in goal.

Pushing into the Brad Friedel years I have accepted my role. The occasional run-out is always appreciated, but first and foremost, I’m the goalie. Red Star White City ascended into the second tier of our league the season before last, and then narrowly avoided relegation back down. This season (a ten-week period) we’re sitting mid-table. It’s hard to believe. We are not particularly hot, skill-wise, and our league is packed with scarily good players. One or two of us have some tricks and pace, but if we keep possession for more than four phases it’s a miracle. Where we excel is organisation. We are in fact like the undefeated New Zealand team in the 2010 World Cup. A bunch of Ryan Nelsons everyone expects to walk over, but who somehow hang in there through sheer will and constant harrying. Defence, we do well. And the heart of the defence is the lunk with the gloves on. Last night we won 3-0 against our arch-enemies Refine United. And in doing so I reached the highest height of my goalkeeping career so far. A bunch of saves all around the area, including three (not entirely over-egged) diving fingertip numbers and a classic backwards-stuck-out-leg-having-gone-the-wrong-way-initially, giving us the clean sheet. In the morning report, I received not only man of the match, but player of the week in all fixtures, and the goalie spot in the (fabled pantheon of) team of the week. I am literally choking in goalie glory. Next week of course I will let in a stupid one at the near post or fumble a back-pass into my own net, but before a fall comes some rather lovely pride.

I still resent my inability to nip, dart or achieve anything approximating fitness, but like Brad on the cover of The Soccer Goalkeeping Handbook, by legendary keeper-coach Alex Welsh, I am aging not ungracefully.

Brad saved it without even looking …

I asked Alex Welsh what he thought the key skills for a five-a-side goalie were compared to that of the full-size version. He summarised it beautifully:


Goalkeeping in Five-a-Side – Alex Welsh

In terms of the goalkeeping issues for five-a-side, the key principles remain the same, but the keeper has less time and space. With a quicker game constrained by the below-head-height and goal-area rules, the following points need to be considered:

Shot Stopping

  • Constantly adjust your position as the ball moves so that you are always in the right place as the opponent shoots; and always be ready.
  • Adopt a low, ready position and become a good exponent of the collapsing and low-diving saves.
  • If not making a clean catch, parry or deflect into safety zones (wide of the goal).
  • Develop good blocking techniques for close-range shots.

Distribution CSC

  • Catch the ball safely before
  • Scanning to select the target. Choose the appropriate throwing technique (roll or sling) before
  • Counter-attacking to advantage. If counter-attacking, throw to the back foot (the one closest to the opponent’s goal) and if seeking to retain possession throw to the safe side. Remember a pass is a present so don’t give the receiver a control problem.
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