Sunday, July 5, 2009

Le Grand Depart 2009 - mimitig

It’s the beginning of July and that means only one thing: the summer of sport is about to get even better: motor sports reach the crucial half-way point in their season, the biggest contest in cricket starts (The Ashes) and the men in lycra embark on the toughest challenge in cycling.

Literally millions of people, the world over, become armchair cycling fans for the duration of Le Tour de France. A fair few haul out their old replica strips and take to the roads in a vain attempt to convince themselves that they could have been a contender.

However, before Le Tour takes over completely, mention must be made of the incredible achievement of Valentino Rossi last weekend in Assen.

At the circuit known as ‘The Cathedral of Speed’, Rossi gave the fans and the field a master class in speed, determination and technique to claim his 100th victory in MotoGP – the pinnacle of motorcycle track racing.

The great Giacomo Agostini describes Rossi the Greatest of all Time, and who could argue with that?

As the MotoGP cavalcade moved off to the USA for the next race at the breath-taking Laguna Seca circuit, nearly 200 men on two-wheeled machines with no engines, prepared to race for 3500 km in the most gruelling ordeal known to sporting man.

This year race director Christian Prudhomme decided to honour the Principality of Monaco by granting them the right to host day one of the Tour – Le Grand Depart. Even before the day arrived there was much excitement buzzing around. Not since London in 2007 has an opening Time Trial generated so much hype. For a start there is just something special about Monte Carlo – the amazing mountain scenery, the dramatic views across the harbour, the scent of freshly banked money and of course the preponderance of “beautiful people”. Then there’s the course itself: 15.5 km making it one of the longest Time Trials in Tour history, and including a steep ascent at the start and a testing technical descent of 4 km before finishing on the flat.

Happily the racing on the day did not disappoint. All eyes were on Lance Armstrong – returning to the Tour after a three-year lay off. How fast would he go? How fit would he look? Well the answers to those questions are: pretty damn fast (he came 10th) and lean, hungry and fit as a butcher’s dog. For all those who have mixed feelings about his return to the Tour, there is no denying that he has put in the hard yards and is most definitely not there for the publicity or to make up the numbers.

Lance chose to go out quite early in the Trial and for a while was second only to Astana team mate and fellow American Levi Leipheimer. But the big guns, the really big guns were the last to ride and the tension mounted.

First of the true challengers to set off was our very own Bradley Wiggins, Olympic gold-medallist and potential stage winner this year. He put in a great ride, gave it all he had, but only made the bottom step of the podium. Unfortunately for Brad, not only was the course less suited to his skills than a flatter route would have been, but he is up against two of the strongest riders the Tour has seen in recent years.

Alberto Contador, many people’s favourite for Tour winner, was on fire when he took to the track. As we watched him make the ascent look easy and hurtle round the corners, it seemed impossible for anyone to beat him. Only one man in the world could – Fabian Cancellara. According to Phil Ligget, Cancellara “flew down the mountain like an eagle”. According to Phil’s co-commentator, Paul Sherwen, the Swiss was “in turbo jetville”.

And so ended a thrilling day of cycling. Le Grand Depart of 2009 lived up to all expectations and three weeks of thrills and spills, sprints, breakaways and crashes lie ahead before the peloton rolls down the Champs Elysees on Sunday 26 July.

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