Two of the great sporting events of summer 2009 are now underway. Le Tour has faced its first great hurdle – the Pyrenees – and the first Ashes Test came to a dramatic conclusion at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff.
England posted a nondescript first innings score of 435 and none of the specialist batsmen made the most of a flat wicket. When Australia got in, they certainly did. Four made centuries and England were under the cosh. One session was lost to rain and on Sunday, England had to find some steel and try to bat out the day for a draw.
Early wickets were given away and it was only the nuggetty grit of Durham man Paul Collingwood – who batted for nigh on six hours – that gave England the sniff of a draw. When he fell with 12 overs to go, most thought it was simply a matter of a few fast balls before the tailenders would be back in the pavilion.
Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, however, were dogged and determined and admirably held out against the Aussie bowlers. Ponting whinged about England’s “gamesmanship” after the match. Someone in the England dressing room sent on first the 12th Man and then the Physio in the last few overs. True it was a bit questionable but this is the Ashes, we want to win and any chance to get under Ponting’s skin should be taken Anyway, the Aussies took questionable gamesmanship to new heights at the MCG in 1981. A bit of flim flam with new gloves is hardly comparable to underarm bowling.
The Second Test begins on Thursday 16 July with the score 0-0.
While five days of not exactly high-octane, but nail-biting, cricket were being played out in Wales, nearly 200 questionably sane men were hurtling round France, Monaco, Andorra, Spain and France again.
The Paul and Phil show was underway.
Le Grand Depart had been spectacular and the next stages have not disappointed. Mark Cavendish became the first Briton to take the Green Jersey since its introduction in 1953 by taking wins on Stages Two and Three. He lost it to Big Thor Hushovd, but as the race resumed after the rest day on Monday 13 July, two flat stages from Limoges to Issoudun and Vatan to Saint Vargeau provided the opportunities for bunch sprints.
As was to be expected on Bastille Day, French riders made the breakaway and Sammy Dumoulin, Thierry Hupond and Benoit Vaugrenard (accompanied by Mikhail Ignatiev) led for most of the 194.5 km. The peloton, however, while happy to let the French boys have their time in the sun, never lost control and lined up for a bunch sprint with 2 km to go. Columbia HTC led the train and Mark Renshaw delivered the fastest man in the world at exactly the right point. Hushovd retained the Green Jersey but only by six points and a situation Mark rectified on Stage 11, with possibly his best ever Tour win, and relegating Thor to fifth place.
Cavendish has now, in just two Tours, equalled the all time British record held by Barry Hoban of eight stage wins. His post-race interview is here:
In the higher echelons of the General Classification – ie those riders who are favourites to win the race itself, there has been plenty to hold our interest.
Lance Armstrong has proved his mettle by riding almost as well as he ever did and is only a few seconds off the lead. Contador holds a lead of just 2 seconds over the Texan and the battle for the leadership of Team Astana will carry on well into the Alps, maybe even all the way to Mont Ventoux on Saturday 25 July. These two lie currently third and second respectively with the Maillot Jaune remaining with Italian Rinaldo Nocentini – who is not a contender but did a fine job holding on over the Pyrenees.
Levi Leipheimer has lost a few seconds – now 39 back and Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins is sitting high in the General Classification at fifth, just 46 seconds behind the leader. He has transformed his World Championship and Olympic Gold medal winning track performances into sheer class on the road.
The French have had the best start in a Tour for most of our lifetimes. Finally with the peloton transparently cleaner than it has been for decades, what the French have been saying for years really does ring true. The sport in France took steps to be drug-free long before any other nations or teams were prepared to admit the problem. The result has been that for years, French teams and riders have not featured much in big stage races. In the Tour they have often managed to pull off a spectacular breakaway win on Bastille Day but not much else besides.
This year, Frenchmen have won three stages in the first nine days. Fedrigo’s win on Sunday was a triumph for France and French cycling.
Paul and Phil continue to make Tour commentary one of the best in sport. As well as being informative and utterly professional, with both men drawing appropriately on their own experiences of riding the Tour, there are moments of delightful eccentricity. So far this year we have heard Paul’s unusual pronunciation of Monaaco, and Phil’s best so far – as he described the “violent”seconds leading up to the bunch sprint finish on Stage 10. I think he meant “vital” but violent is so much better and works so well with his and Paul’s continuing use of “killermeters”.
I leave you with my Tour highlight so far: it can only be Cav.