Welcome to MY summer!
Hello readers. As May races to its conclusion, the thoughts (and lusts) of all well-adjusted sports fans hasten to the sunshine domination of men in pristine whites and lots and lots of lycra – hopefully plenty of it pink.
Thanks to the inevitably pitiful performances of the Home Countries' badly-dressed football players, there is nothing to distract you all now from the glories of Test Cricket and Pro-Cycling. Well, yes I know there’s still Euro 2008 and some of you may have teams to support, but let’s face it, you lot have all had a long season with your home leagues to be keen on, and it’s time to embrace the PROPER summer sports.
And it is starting now. Well, not really – cricket has been underway for a month. The county season is almost a quarter of the way through, and my local season began on a freezing cold Saturday a month ago when Lossie played a triangular Twenty20 against Elgin and Fochabers at the really pretty (when the trees have leaves) Fochabers ground beside the Spey. We’ve even had the first Test match – last week at Lord’s, but the weather cost two days of play and England the win, so we forget that and start again at Old Trafford tomorrow with the second New Zealand Test.
For the men in lycra, they’ve done some of the hardest kilometres (outwith Le Tour) already. They warmed up as usual with the stuff like Qatar, Langkawi, California (that one was a little bit silly this year as Michael Ball – no not the singing one – attempted to make cycling the new rock and roll but it all went wrong and Cipo went off in a huff), and the Tour Downunder. Actually that wasn’t a bad show – except for wet weather round Adelaide way, but it will be a long time, maybe even a lifetime, before any of these races are regarded as anything other than warm-ups for some or desperate attempts at publicity for some others.
If that seems a harsh judgement on colonial/out-of-Europe racing, well, it is and there’s a reason for it. Cycling is desperately reaching out for new global markets, but its heart and soul will always belong in the north. Will belong on the harsh, unforgiving paves of Belgium and northern France, will suffer the desperate weather so often flung at the Paris-Roubaix (The Hell of the North) and no early season races in clement climes will ever change that.
So, we had the skirmishes. Astana’s Levi Leipheimer won in the US of A, Tom “Beloved of the Belgians” Boonen took honours in Qatar, and Cadel Evans attacked, yes attacked, at the Ruta del Sol. Moving back to Europe Philippe Gilbert took the Het Volk, Fabian Cancellara triumphed in Italy (twice) and one of my favourites, Alejandro Valverde, won the tour of Murcia and Liege-Bastogne. Tom triumphed at Paris-Roubaix and his team-mate at Quick Step, Stijn Devolder, took the Tour of Flanders. Oscar Freire won at Ghent and Kim Kirchen was splendid winning the Fleche Wallonne.
In all, the proper season has started, well, properly. Boonen is back on form, with some pomp, and Quick Step are right there in the team standings. For those with a GB interest, Mark Cavendish (The Manx Express) has come out of the blocks all guns blazing with stage wins in the Three Days of De Panne, an outright win at the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, and a stage at the Giro. Times look good for High Road.
New team, Slipstream – the boys in Argyll - David Millar’s boys, haven’t had wins yet, but Martin Maaskant rode to 12th on the Tour of Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix like an old pro and yet no-one has ever really heard of him. Boss Jonathan Vaughters has nicked him from Rabobank, and nobody noticed! Look out for him in years to come. He’s only 24 years old.
For anyone who cares about cycling, the best news is that we are mostly not seeing the same old names at the top of the sheets and the races so far have been unpredictable. And exciting, and most likely drug-free. Noticeably in the Classics, no team has been able to dominate in the way we have seen over the past decade or so. Individual skill and strength has determined results far more than the old predictable pattern.
The only old names hitting the headlines in a bad way are Alexandre Vinokourov – banned from the Pro Tour for doping but allegedly training now for Beijing, and Ivan Basso – signed by Liquigas but not allowed to ride in France, or Germany, or probably Britain or Spain. Doesn’t leave much for a Pro-cyclist, does it?
It’s way too early to make predictions about cycling’s most important event, Le Tour, but one prediction I’m happy to make is that this is going to be the most open and exciting Tour that we’ve seen in years. The Giro is drawing to its conclusion and unless I’m much mistaken in reading results, Cav is second in the standings as I write. An incredibly unexpected result, not withstanding his earlier stage win.
For the cricket-interested, we go into Test Two against New Zealand with an unchanged side from Lord’s, but on a ground far more suited to the England attack. Monty Panesar has a superb record there (18 or so wickets in the meagre handful of matches he has played) and unless the weather plays a bad fairy role, I’d be looking for an England win come next Tuesday.
All in all, my summer is looking good, in white and in lycra. Not sure I’d want the boys to swap sporting disciplines or dress. Kevin Pietersen in pink lycra is an image I can well do without!
And I can truly declare Football to be over as I learn that Celtic has won the SPL – and that is a worthy tribute to Tommy Burns. I’m glad Celtic won by beating Dundee – I hate to think what is happening on the streets of Aberdeen right now as I read that Rangers were beaten 2-0 by the Dons.