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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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