Thursday 30 December 2010

2010 Review of the Cycling Year

Last year I marked the turn of the decade with what I called the first, maybe annual, but definitely not prestigious Muse-ette Awards. The fact I'm doing another edition this year means at least the annual bit is now true!

If 2009 was what I called "a good year for the bike world" then 2010 has turned out a bit differently. It started out well, had a great middle and a pretty good end, racing-wise, but unfortunately the whole year has been tarnished, like so many before it, by the spectre of doping. Yet again we've had to witness great races nullified by positive tests or besmirched by unworthy, unrepentant cheats.

But enough ranting. Here, in no particular order, are the 2010 Muse-ette Awards:

Best Stage Race: Naturally one thinks of the Grand Tours when looking for a candidate for the best stage race but this year, despite all of them being up there among the most compelling races ever, all three have had shadows cast over them. First there was the tarnished figure of Basso taking pink in Italy, then Beef-gate, then  not one but two high profile positives from the Vuelta. So this year I've decided to give the award to what (I hope) is most likely the cleanest, purest stage race around, the Junior Tour of Ireland. For over thirty years this great race has been a nursery for future champions and it deserves all the recognition that can be bestowed on it. Perhaps more than ever this year when it survived through the hard work and perseverance of a dedicated team, despite the loss of it's title sponsor.

Best Stage in a Grand Tour:  I know I'm kind of contradicting what I said above but, despite the later problems, there were some epic individual stages this year. For me this one has to go to stage 7 of the Giro to Montalcino. It was like going back in time to the early days of the sport seeing Cadel et al, caked in mud, battling it out, without the interference of team instructions, over the Strada Bianche. Honourable Mention: In a similar vein stage 3 of Le Tour to Arenberg was an epic, dusty, dramatic day with winners and losers galore. That particular day was personally special seeing as I was actually there, standing for the first time on those hallowed pavé.  

Best One Day Race: Tour of Flanders. Who wasn't awestruck by the sight of Cancellara and Boonen simply riding away from the rest on the Molenberg, 40k plus out from the finish? And then, in a straight head to head battle up the Muur, Spartacus simply powered away from a helpless Tom to take a great victory. Honourable Mention: Tour of Lombardy, where Gilbert left the rest for dead in appalling conditions before having time to point out the number one on his bike with over 1km to go.

Best Finish: Cadel Evans at Huy. In a year when he did the Rainbow Jersey proud, the highlight for me was the sight of Cuddles powering up the Mur De Huy to win the Fleche Wallone. Sheer determination oozing from his every muscle, he left Contador and the rest for dead.

Best Irish Rider: Tough one to call this year, so I'm going to bottle it and give the award jointly to the pedalling cousins, Nico Roche and Dan Martin. Nico for his magnificent Tour and Vuelta rides and Dan for his wins in Poland and Japan. Honourable Mentions: Matt Brammeier for taking on the big boys to nab the Irish title and then turning it into a contract with HTC and Orla Hendron, our latest World Champion after taking the Masters Points race.

Best Young Rider: Felix English I know it's a bit churlish of me, but for an 18 year old to take on Sir Chris and win, even if His Knightship was looking the other way, deserves a pat on the back!

Best Celebration: Michael Matthews. It's always great to see raw joy on the line but when it's a 20 year old after just bagging a World title in his home country it gladdens the heart even more.

Most Embarrassing Result of the Year: For the second year running this gong goes to Piti Valverde for winning the Tour De Romandie when the dogs on the street knew he was about to be banned, finally, for the Puerto goings on. (Dis)Honourable Mention: Who among you wasn't sickened at the sight of Vino crossing the line at Liege. And then he rubbed it in with his half-hearted "apology". Eugh!!

The George Lee What Was I Thinking Award: Lance Armstrong, for what might turn out to be the most ill-advised ego trip, sorry I meant comeback, in the history of sport if Floyd Landis has his way. BTW Lance, posting snide tweets about Jeff Novitsky using your One Ball pseudonym isn't really helping you much.

The Tiger Woods Award for Most Stage Managed, But Still Really Awkward, Press Conference: Alberto Contador for the double whammy of p***ing off the cycling world and the entire Spanish beef industry in one fell swoop. If it all turns out to be true he can reel off as many "zero, zero, zero"'s as he likes, his credibility will still be in the gutter. But then again he wriggled out of Puerto so who knows how it'll all end.

The Thierry Henry Cheat of the Year Award: Another joint award goes to Alberto Contador who should have had the fish and Ezequiel Mosquera for ruining a great Vuelta. (Dis)Honourable Mention: Vania Rossi, the Szczepaniak brothers, Bernucci, Frei, Li Fuyu, Bosisio, Pellizotti, Prado, Valjavec, Larpe, De Bonis, Caucchioli, Serrano, Axelsson, Staite, Sentjens. Sevilla, Dapena, Benta, Colo, the Rui Costa brothers, etc, etc.

The Grassy Knoll Award for Most Ridiculous Conspiracy Theory: Davide Cassani for triggering the "Cancellara used an engine" stories on Italian TV. For the UCI to actually start checking bikes for engines while simultaneously not getting around to telling the world that the Tour winner had tested positive for angel dust just compounds the silliness.

The No News is Bad News Award: Yet another joint award (I'm really indecisive tonight!) goes to Vancansoliel and Christina Watches for proving that some sponsors do see a value in the column inches the cheats generate. The employers of Ricco and Rasmussen respectively must be hoping that a Festina-style sales jump happens to them too.

The UCI Award for Making It Up As You Go Along: UCI for making it up as they go along. When is a Pro Tour not a Pro Tour?

Because it's my blog I'm adding two new awards this year.

The first is the My Best Day on a Bike This Year Award which goes to the 15th August. That was the day I rode the Inishowen 100, a day of blistering sunshine, beautiful scenery, tough climbs and good legs. It doesn't get much better.

The second is the My Worst Day on a Bike This Year Award which goes to the 27th August. That was the day a Golden Retriever called Max decided to run across the road just as I was passing. He didn't use the Green Cross Code and I ended up with a broken pelvis.

Finally, 2010 has seen the passing of some true cycling greats:

JJ McCormack, 84, Multiple Irish Champion, Administrator and Race Organiser but most of all one of the biggest, most respected, characters the sport has seen and a great friend.
David Hourigan, 38, Manx International winner and former Irish international, found dead in a hotel in Thailand.
Laurent Fignon, 50, Not just the guy who lost the Tour by 8 seconds, but the guy who won it spectacularly on his first two attempts. Succumbed to cancer on 31st August.
Joe Daly, 89, Dundrum bike shop owner and passionate supporter of the sport for many, many years.
Franco Ballerini, 45, Twice Paris Roubaix winner and Italian national coach, tragically killed in a rallying accident in February.
Txema Gonzalez, 43, Team Sky soigneur struck down by a mystery virus during the Vuelta.
Fortunato Bernardi, Rosario Perri, Francesco Stranges, Vinicio Pottin, Giovanni Cannizzaro, Pasquale De Luca and Domenico Palazzo, from 35 to 58a group of Italian clubmates from Lamezia Terme mown down in early December by a 21 year old driver who was allegedly under the influence of marijuana.

Armando Borrajo, 34, Former Argentinian National Champion took his own life on December 18th, shortly after he was allegedly kidnapped for a short period.
Aldo Sassi, 51, legendary Italian coach, famous for vowing to only work with dope free riders, who raised eyebrows by agreeing to take on both Basso and Ricco was lost to a brain tumour in December.
Jure Robic , 45, five times Race Across America winner killed in a collision with a car on a fast descent in his native Slovenia in September

May they, and all other cyclists lost this year, rest in peace.

Finally, once again, thank you for reading the muse-ette in 2010. I wish you all a very Happy New Year and many enjoyable miles in 2011.

Saturday 18 December 2010

How to beat the snow

You have to love this cheap and simple technique for making your bike snow-ready, from the Dutch Bike Co guys in Seattle. Cable ties as snow tyres! Brilliant!

Full instructions are on their blog:

Sunday 5 December 2010

It's Cross Time

It's always hard to find anything to write about at this time of year, and now is no different. Outside is covered in snow so I can't tell you about my training rides, there's no pro racing so I can't write about that and the Contador "did he, didn't he" debate is going nowhere fast.

So this week, as I was slipping to the shops on my mountain bike, I got thinking about cyclo-cross, an often forgotten aspect of our beloved sport. I have to admit cross was never really my thing. I can't quite put my finger on what it was about the cold, muddy, technical, fast, lung busting efforts involved that I never quite mastered! The post Christmas novelty event run by my club, Eagle CRC, was as far as my cross career went. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate this most spectator friendly event.

And some people take it very seriously, especially the Americans and the Belgians. So here's two YouTube clips that'll take you into their world. Keep and eye out for Sven Nys bunny hopping the ditch - wow!

Friday 12 November 2010

the muse-ette mourns The Cobra

I've gotten a few good posting opportunities over the last year or so from my good friend Ricardo Ricco, aka The Cobra. Imagine my shock then today to read that my favourite snake is no longer with us.

In an interview with Cycling News reporter, Daniel Friebe, Ricco announced to the world that The Cobra is dead. In his place we can expect a new, humble, honest, clean, cuddly Ricco. Maybe we should call him The Bunny Rabbit from now on.

According to the man himself he's turned over a new leaf. No longer will he be the aggressive, venomous, self centred cheat we all came to know and love. Now he's going to be a friendly, diplomatic, tolerant, all round good guy.

Do I believe him? Don't be silly! Of course not.

This is a guy who has shown us that there is no ethical limit he is not prepared to breach to get one over on his rivals. He has doped, he has lied, he has ridden roughshod over team-mates and, worst of all, he has abandoned his baby to avoid the taint of a doping case. Add to that the fact that the Italian police are investigating virtually his whole extended family as a doping ring.

We're all used to seeing witnesses credibility being questioned in TV courtroom dramas. What a field day they'd have with this guy. Credibility, what credibility?

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is the recent connection between Aldo Sassi and Ricco. Sassi is coach to several top riders, including Evans, Cunego and, recently, Basso. He has always insisted that he will not work with dopers. He has however said that he is happy to work with those committed to reforming themselves. Hence the Basso relationship.

Why would he want to risk his reputation on Ricco? Given Ricco's track record you'd have to think he's setting himself up for a fall. But here's the catch, Sassi has terminal cancer. He isn't expected to live past mid next year. My theory is that either he's not the saint he says he is but now has nothing to lose or he's taking a last gamble on the big one. What better legacy than being the man who reformed the unreformable.

How tragic will it be then that a man will die and have his memory inevitably tainted, either by Ricco's next fall or by posthumous evidence he's not been as innocent as he's always claimed.

I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Impressive rollers riding

It's that time of year when the turbo trainers and rollers are dusted off so I thought this was appropriate. Having spent many hours on the rollers over the years I have to say I'm very impressed by this guys skill, even if his kid thinks he's a dork!

Friday 22 October 2010

Chasing Legends

Last night was the gala showing of Chasing Legends, the new release by director Jason Berry. The movie, shot mainly in stunning HD, follows the HTC Columbia team through the 2009 Tour De France.

Using a combination of fly-on-the-wall footage from within the team's inner sanctum, interviews with past and current legends, standard TV coverage and some vintage film, it attempts to convey the Tour De France as it is for the riders, team staff, support personnel and spectators. Although primarily focussing on sprinter Mark Cavendish's stage wins, the film delves into what the Tour has meant historically and tries to convey just why the Tour is the biggest annual sporting event in the world.

Chasing Legends is a visually stunning movie. The Tour provides the most spectacular stage set for the drama unfolding before us and the director uses that backdrop to great effect. From the prologue in Monaco to the high mountains to the dramatic finale on the Champs Elysee we are treated to some stunning cinematography much of which shows the Tour from angles not normally seen in regular coverage.

For me some of the static shots taken from spectator angles were the most unique. At one point the camera views a stage finish from a vantage point atop a building, looking from behind the riders as they cross the line. It's a perspective I've never seen before and really drove home the number of people within the race entourage, and behind the crowd barriers, that greet a stage winner, which in turn emphasised the rarity and importance of that stage win.

Equally revealing is the sequence highlighting the role and daily reality of the motorcycle borne photographers on the race. By attaching cameras to, and following, snapper legends Graham Watson and Tim DeWaele, the director has captured the dual pace of their world. You see high-octane, helmet-cam footage of the motos weaving through the heart of a full speed peloton careering off the side of the high mountains. That adrenaline fuelled excitement is intercut with the technical brilliance of their talent for freezing the action around them into the stunning photos we've all come to expect in our monthly and weekly mags.

While the Tour itself is the real star, the insights we get into the HTC team put a human face on it. We see team meetings where we learn riders nicknames (Mark Renshaw really does look like "Prince Harry" but I'm not sure Tony Martin looks like a "PanzerWagen") and find out how tactics are discussed and decided. There is also plenty of in-car footage showing the sometimes all-powerful but often helpless roles of team directors, Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag, not to mention the personal dynamics between two alpha-males stuck together in a car for seven hours every day for a month.

There is no doubt that the directors lucked out by following the world's fastest sprinter while he was on top form, so there are some great sequences building up to the climax of Cavendish's missile-like lunges for the line and the team celebrations afterwards. However, probably the most dramatic events happen on the stage in which George Hincapie missed out on the Yellow Jersey by a mere five seconds.

On the other hand, that section of the movie also highlights what for me is one of it's weaknesses. While we are able to share in George's disappointment, and are left in no doubt that the blame lays at the door of the Garmin team, there is no attempt to balance the accusations flying about by finding out why Garmin might have ridden like they did.

The focus on the HTC team, who have pretty much put all of their eggs in the Cav basket, means that none of our "heroes" feature in the battle for the overall classification. As a result probably the most difficult and most significant stages of the Tour, the mountain stages, are glossed over as mere survival days. While it's nice to get the perspective of the "bus", those of us who follow the Tour know that there was some pretty serious drama happening at the front of the race that year. As far as this movie goes the Contador v Lance powerplay might never have happened. By concentrating on the harmony within the HTC camp, I feel the film misses a chance to show the other side of the story. All top level sport involves politics and Astana that year was a great case study in that.

Having said that, Chasing Legends is a spectacular movie. It is beautiful to look at and the pace is frenetic but at the same time the Tour is shown due respect and deference. As cycling documentaries go it's definitely one of the best.

Following the screening there was a live link to London, where Phil Liggett was standing by to interview the director, Jason Berry and the stars of the show, Mark Cavendish, Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag. This part of the night was just as entertaining.

Holm admitted that despite himself and Aldag hoping their movie debut would portray them as being like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt, they came out more like Stan and Ollie. But he was being modest! These guys have been around the block and their depth of knowledge was clear both on screen and during the discussion.

However, the show was stolen by Cav. Love him or hate him, this young man always has plenty to say and last night was no exception. He's sometimes disarmingly frank but, when the norm these days is for sportsmen to either not comment at all or to spout a stream of "game-of-two-halves" clichés, Cav shoots straight and worries about the fallout later.

He made some very interesting comments on the doping situation. His take was that the bulk of the peloton is now riding clean which is why we've seen so many bunch or group finishes in big races this year, unlike in the past when you used to get "great" exploits from riders like Ricco (he name checked the Cobra in particular which says a lot!). Cav feels that making races harder, as is the trend, is only going to increase the chances of group finishes because, in a clean world, riders are simply too tired, or too scared, to break away.

While that was positive news to hear from one of the leaders of the bunch, the effect was undone a bit by the most ridiculous comment of the night. Liggett finished things off by asking Aldag and Holm what their best Tour memory was. Aldag, not surprisingly, said his was winning the team prize with Telekom. Then there was an audible intake of breathe in the cinema when Holm revealed that his was when fellow Dane, Bjarne Riis, won the race in 1996. Does this guy not read the papers!

Wednesday 20 October 2010

A cycling shrine

Santuario Madonna Del Ghisallo

After enduring a soaking as we raced around after the Tour of Lombardy on Saturday, we could take things a bit easier on Sunday. We enjoyed a stroll around the food market in Melegnano in the morning followed by a leisurely lunch with friends, including one who has just come back from Afghanistan, but that's another story!

Since we had plenty of time to get to Bergamo for our flight we decided to head back to Lake Como and try to visit Madonna Del Ghisallo. It's not often I'd go out of my way to see a church, but this is no ordinary church.

The Sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghisallo, located near the village of Magreglio, has been venerated as the site of a Marian apparition since medieval times. But more recently, in the 1940's, the local priest proposed that, since the hill up to it is one of the key points in the Tour of Lombardy, it would be appropriate for the Madonna Del Ghisallo to be declared the patron saint of cyclists. He managed to have this confirmed by Pope Pius XII ensuring that this little chapel would become a site of pilgrimage for cyclists the world over.

We drove up from the beautiful, if touristy, Bellagio, covering the route taken by the race the day before. I had always thought that this was a relatively small climb but I was wrong! Over 10km of switchbacks the road rises more than 550m. The average gradient of 5.2% belies the difficulty since it includes a downhill section. In fact, there are some ramps of well over 10%. To put it in perspective, this photo looking down on Bellagio was taken only about half way up.

Bellagio and Lake Como

On reaching the top the popularity of the Madonna Del Ghisallo as a destination for fans becomes clear. Near the church is a large car park flanked by not one, but two, cafés. The area around it is immaculately groomed and maintained.

Immediately in front of the church portico two busts stand side by side, representing those great rivals of mid 20th century Italian cycling, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Bartali and Coppi welcome visitors.

But it's only when you walk inside the tiny chapel that the full extent of it's sacred place in the European, and especially Italian, cycling world hits you. It is literally crammed with memorabilia that any collector would give away their first born for. What gives this collection it's real significance are the facts that it hasn't been gathered out of vanity nor has any money changed hands to assemble it. It's not really a "collection" at all, but rather it's a mix of devotional offerings made in memory of the greats or in thanksgiving for achievements the rider felt were guided by something higher than training and diet (but not illegal!).

Bikes, pennants, jerseys and plaques line the walls

There are bikes, jerseys, pennants and plaques commemorating cyclists of all ages, from legends of the sport to unheralded amateurs, some of whom are buried in the cemetery across the road.

Of course, a lot of the items belonged to Italian riders but not all. There are Tour Yellow Jerseys (including those of Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault), multiple Rainbow Jerseys (including Evans, Bugno, Cippolini, Saronni, Binda, Ballan and Cantele) and multiple Giro Pink Jerseys (Pantani, Motta, Moser).

One wall of jerseys won by Hinault, Indurain, Saronni, Bugno, Binda,
Ballan, Cantele, Canins and many, many more.

Bikes on display include those of Coppi, Motta, Moser, Gimondi and Merckx.

Gimondi and Moser's bikes.
Coppis bike and Tour Maillot Jaune
Motta's bike

Perhaps most poignant of all the items on display are the memorials to young riders cut off in their prime. South African, Ryan Cox is commemorated by a framed Barloworld jersey but it is the battered bike from which Olympic Champion Fabio Casertelli fell during the Tour De France that stops you in your tracks. That tragic event on the Porte D'Aspet in the Pyrenees hit Italian cycling hard. That his bike is given pride of place, next to those of Merckx and Coppi, shows the depth of feeling it still engenders.

Fabio Casertelli's damaged bikes reminds us all of the dangers of the sport.

Over the years so many artefacts have been donated to the church that it became impossible to display them all in it's tiny chapel. So, in 2006, a full blown cycling museum was opened next door. Walking from the church to the museum you pass a small garden area overlooking the stunning Lake Como below. The garden contains a plaque dedicated to the memory of Vincenzo Torriani, long time director of the Giro D'Italia and a magnificent sculpture encapsulating the two sides of this fantastic sport. It depicts two riders, one with an arm raised in triumph while the other picks himself off the ground in disappointment.

Agony and ecstasy

We arrived at the museum just as it was closing to visitors but a bit of "but we came all the way from Ireland" shameless pleading got us in, and for nothing as well! And boy, was it worth the journey!

For all of the poignancy of the church, the museum is something else entirely. The building has a low profile, sweeping design which blends into the hillside but is surprisingly cavernous inside. One end is a full curtain of glass which I'm sure reveals a magnificent view over Lake Como, if the clouds aren't down on top of it like they were on Sunday.

But it's the contents that are the star. As you walk down the switchback ramp to the sunken ground floor, you pass one amazing black and white snapshot of Italy's cycling history after another. Coppi features a lot but overall the photos show the sport as an integral part of the social fabric of the country.

Once on the ground floor you can wander at will through rows of bikes of all ages and by cases of historic jerseys. As you'd expect there's a lot of pink, quite a few rainbows, some yellow plus Olympic rings, blue Italian jerseys and red, white and green national championship colours all labelled with instantly recognisable names of great champions.

Giro Winners jerseys. From right: Ivan Gotti (1999), Ivan Basso (2010)
and Denis Menchov (2009)
World Cup and World Champions Jerseys won by Paulo Bettini
Marco Pantani's 1998 Tour De France winners jersey
Matt Lloyds 2010 Giro KOM Jersey 

It's especially nice when a jersey or bike throws up a personal memory. For me seeing Guiseppi Saronni's red Worlds winning Colnago brought me right back to my first experience of the race at Goodwood in 1982. The fact it was just beside Cadel Evans Rainbow Jersey, my last time at the race, added a little more significance. The 1960 Olympic winners jersey was a reminder of my Dads involvement in that event.

Red Colnago ridden to victory by Saronni, World Champs, Goodwood, 1982 
World Champions stripes. From right: Lance Armstrong (1993), Cadel Evans (2009),
Luc Leblanc (1994)
Olympic Team Pursuit Champions Jersey won by
Marino Vigna (ITA), Rome, 1960

Every old cyclist loves to stress how bikes were harder to ride in their day, how they had no gears, or bigger tyres, or heavier frames, etc, etc... But when you see some of those bikes up close it's pretty clear they aren't kidding. I was especially amazed to see Bartali's 1948 Tour De France winning bike. I had heard about pre derailleur bikes, where changing gears involved taking out the back wheel and turning it around, but I'd never seen one before. Incidentally, the story goes that Bartali inadvertently stopped a possible civil war in Italy by winning that Tour, when opposing factions came together to celebrate his victory.

1948 Tour winning bike of Gino Bartali. Check out the two sided rear wheel.
My Dad was there to see Ercole Baldini win the 1958 Worlds on this bike.

One section of the museum is dedicated to greats of the sport throughout the years, including a feature honouring the top 48 riders of all time. Needless to say Sean Kelly is in there with the best. It's hard not to feel a sense of pride that one of our own is so obviously highly respected in such a cycling mad country as Italy. Even if he is described as "Inglese" under nationality.

Kelly takes his place among the greats.
Kelly's nook in the 48 Greatest of All Time section

Where's he from?

Of course, after reading about Kelly we went looking for the section about Stephen Roche. Amazingly there isn't one! Now he may not be one of the top 48 but surely winning the triple in 1987 must qualify him for a place on the bigger "Great Encyclopedia of Cycling"? Or have the Italians not forgiven him for beating Visentini?

Where's Roche?

Everywhere you turn, you're looking at what can only be described as the holy relics of cycling. Coppi's track bike, Merckx's bike and jersey collection, a display case of jerseys belonging to Museum Director Fiorenzi Magni, Moser's groundbreaking Hour Record bike. You name it and it's there somewhere.

Il Campionissimo's Track Bike
And the man himself.
The greatest of them all rode a very ordinary looking bike....
... but won pretty much everything there is on it.
Magni, an Italian legend and Director of the Museum
The bike that broke the Hour twice in a few days 1984, helped by some then
still legal blood doping.

My only regret of the day is we hadn't anywhere near enough time to see everything on display. We had no time to really enjoy the movies showing in the cinema, we missed the technical exhibit, the collection of track bikes, the historic newspaper covers or the special exhibit commemorating Franco Ballerini, tragically killed earlier in the year.

The Sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghisallo, and the accompanying Museum, are rightly a mecca for cycling fans. If there was to be a list of cycling related things to do before you die visiting here would have to feature at or near the top. The only way to top this visit would be to ride up the climb first. Maybe next time!

Museum website:

PS: Some of the images adorning the walls of the museum:

PPS: How to get there from Dublin:

We flew Ryanair to Bergamo (or Milan as they call it!) and then rented a car from Europcar. Madonna Del Ghisallo is approx 65km from Bergamo airport.

Alternatively you could fly to Milan Malpensa (85km away) or Milan Linate (67km).

By public transport you could catch a train to Asso from Milano Cadorno station and take a bus from there.

Monday 18 October 2010

Tour Of Lombardy 2010

Ever since seeing Sean Kelly battling with Greg Lemond along the shores of Lake Como in the 80's I've loved watching the Tour of Lombardy. The rolling, twisting roads, lined with palatial villas, and the autumnal light make this one of the seasons most dramatic events. This year I finally managed to get there in person for a day of madcap driving on, literally, the highways and byways of Lombardy chasing the peleton and sitting in race created traffic jams.

Known as the "Race of the Falling Leaves" this October race always features the short (believe me, that's a relative term!), sharp, and very beautiful, hills around this famous lake in Northern Italy, although the start and finish often move around the region. In recent years it has started in Como, Cantu, Mendrisio (SUI), Varese and Milan and has finished in Como, Milan, Monza and Bergamo, but no matter which towns are used, it's always a tough end-of-season battle and caps off one riders season in triumph.

That rider is rarely an unworthy victor. Since Kelly's three wins, in 1983, 1985 and 1991, winners have included Tony Rominger, Laurent Jalabert, Damiano Cunego, Paulo Bettini and, last year, Phillipe Gilbert.

The 2010 race started at the shiny, new Lombardy Regional Council building in central Milan. The riders then headed north to do a lap of the inverted Y shaped Lake Como, with some tough detours into the surrounding hills punctuating the route. The most famous hill has always been the climb to the sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghissalo, Patron Saint of Cyclists, but this year also featured the ascents of the Intelvi, the Colle di Ballisio, the brutally steep Colma di Sormano and a final sting with the inclusion of the steep San Fermo di Battaglia with just 5km to go.

Our day started south of Milan, in the suburban village of Melegnano, home to some long standing family friends, our hosts for the weekend. Following their directions we made our way to a residential street near the start and parked the car, ready to hit the road before the race start.

We wandered down to the area marked on our map as the bus parking area to find a still empty street. We were too keen! So we walked on to the Start area, mooched some freebie caps and compared notes for the day with the other Irish spectators and press we bumped into. Photographer Eoin Clarke even offered to take us in his accredited car but we had to decline that. We would have had trouble getting back to, and finding, our own hire car in Milan afterwards.

We walked back to the bus area to find most teams were set up by now. Bikes were lined up alongside team cars and buses, ready for the riders to emerge from their inner sanctums and move off. Having been at the more formal Worlds and Tour De France in the past, the informality of this scene was great. Team directors, like Sky's Sean Yates and Garmin's Jonathan Vaughters, hung about chatting to all comers while their staff busied themselves readying musettes and spare bikes. Riders talked to fans and press and then moved off one by one to sign on.

Dan Martins bike ready to roll

I had offered the guys at Bike Pure that I would spread their message if I could so I was delighted that an approach to Vaughters was well received. He not only put on the wristband, but took a few more to give away too. This is a man who stands up to be counted!

Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters supporting Bike Pure

My travelling companion Stephen O'Shea tried very hard, without success, to track down his "namesake", Cofidis rider, Stephane Augé. Instead we joined the small group of Irish "fans" waiting for one of the race favourites, Dan Martin, to climb from the Garmin bus. When he did he looked very relaxed. He had plenty of time to chat with us and sign a jersey for some young, female fans. I asked him about the sticker "protest" taking place, which would see some teams wearing a sticker saying "I ride with my heart" in response to comments by an elderley Italian Olympic official that all riders are doping. Dan had no sticker and was quick to dismiss the idea, pointing out for one thing that the man has apologised. I tend to agree with him that the protest was a joke. Some of those making the biggest fuss may not be so squeaky clean themselves! From what I saw, no more than half of the teams looked to be sporting the sticker.

"Io corro con il cuoro" (I ride with my heart")

Dan looks very relaxed before one of his potentially biggest days on a bike.

Edvald Boassen Hagen (Nor), another young rider hoping to shake up the old guard.

This was when we made the biggest mistake of the day. Instead of heading out the road ahead of the race, the temptation to follow the riders to the start was too much. The informality allowed us to mingle with the stars making it hard to drag ourselves away.

Cadel Evans (Aus) looked relaxed without his rainbow jersey.
Three times World Champion, Oscar Freire (Spa)
Olympic Champion, Samuel Sanchez (Spa), looks lost!

When we did finally get to the car, the race had already left and we found ourselves mired in the resulting traffic. I'd never driven in Italy before but it wasn't long before I was copying the locals and taking every opportunity to cut in front, cut across, switch lane, in fact anything to get ahead faster.

One of the keys to following a race like Lombardy is to have your satnav preset with the points where you want to watch the race. Then, in theory, you only have to press the button and the nice lady will tell you the way to go. The problem is she's not so good on unforeseen blockages, like roadworks! Our plan to shoot up the motorway and get ahead of the peloton was thwarted by a blocked entry ramp, forcing us back onto the race route, behind the cavalcade. By the time we got on to the motorway, and off again, just before the Swiss border at Chiasso, the traffic jam in front of us made it pretty clear we'd not gotten the jump on them.

But this wasn't the end of the world. All it meant was we wouldn't get to the point where the race leaves the lake for the Intelvi climb on time. But we were still on schedule for the most important milestone in our day. We needed to catch the ferry from the point where the race rejoined the lakeshore at Menaggio across to Varenna on the far side. That would, and did, allow us to get to the climb above Bellano (famous for the fact George Clooney has a house there!) well before the road closed.

We parked about halfway up, right beside the entry point to another motorway, part of the plan to get us to the next point on time. Leaving the car we had plenty of time to wander down a couple of hairpins, through the narrow cobbled alleys of a sleepy hamlet. The day was turning damp and grey but it wasn't too bad yet and it was nice to stretch our legs, although the absence of a café for a quick espresso was a bit disappointing.

A grey day above Lake Como

Before too long race vehicles started to appear below, snaking their way up to where we were. A tannoy car announced that there was a break of 5 riders away with a gap of 8 minutes. A few minutes more we could see flashing lights coming down the lake from the north just as not one, but two, trains forced a level crossing to close the route. We had a birds eye view of a growing backlog of pre-race cars and could imaging the swearing that was going on in them as the trains trundled past. Just in time the crossing opened and the break rounded the corner below us. The riders were up to us in no time, talking among themselves. It looked to me like they were discussing whether or not to drop one of their number who was starting to struggle.

Mauro De Dalpo (Lampre), Diego Caccia (ISD) and
Kjeil Carlstrom (Sky) among the leading group.
The break consisted of Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), Gianluca Mirenda (ISD-Neri), Diego Caccia (ISD-Neri), Mauro Da Dalto (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Kjeil Carlström (Team Sky) and Michael Albasini (HTC-Columbia). Gallopin was clearly suffering while Carlström had torn shorts and some nasty road rash. It was pretty clear these guys weren't going to be getting the glory today, even at that early stage.

One of the interesting things about seeing a race up close is to watch what the support people are doing. I was amused to see a very well wrapped up motorbike photographer hop off his bike and start clambering up into someone's garden. Anything for the perfect shot! Meanwhile his pilot took the opportunity to get his sandwich out and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the roadside.

Not long after, the peloton came up from below, led by the Omega Pharma Lotto team of race favourite Gilbert. He clearly fancied his chances of two in a row. Best of all Dan Martin was looking comfortable in the main bunch.

Gilbert's boys lead the bunch
Dan (left) is well wrapped up against the conditions. 
The peloton goes on it's way. Spot the photographer in the garden.

Once they'd gone past, we legged it back up the hill to the car and fought our way out through the traffic onto the motorway. I'm not sure what the top speed of a Fiat Panda is but we must have been testing it through the chain of tunnels that brought us to Lecco and our next waypoint.

The weather was drawing in now and the break was looking the worse for wear by the time they passed over the bridge where we were.

Michael Albasini leads the remains of the break through Lecco
The break is splitting at this point
Tony Gallopin has had enough and waits for the bunch

As the bunch passed through we struggled to pick out Dan Martin. Wet days are not the best for spotting riders as they all wear similar rain gear over their distinctive jerseys. Why rain capes can't match team kit I don't know. Neither of us saw Dan and, more worryingly, the Garmin car seemed to be missing too. The pack had been split to pieces so we waited for most of them to go through but there was no sign of Garmin. Eventually we had to get back on the road if we were going to get to Como for the finish so we had no idea if Dan was still in the hunt or not, but it didn't look good.

A rain cape clad peloton rolls through Lecco.
Sky's Bradley Wiggins (left) was obviously having a bad day, but where was
Dan Martin?

About halfway to Como we spotted a load of team cars coming from a junction to the right. That road was a direct route from the last feeding station so these were the staff heading to the finish. I have to admit it was fun racing along sandwiched between the HTC-Columbia and the Caisse D'Epargne cars! At least we didn't need to worry about the satnav.

By the time we parked in Como the rain was pelting down. We were well soaked as we followed the sound of the announcers to find the finish, so could only imagine how it was for the riders. We got to the big screen as the tannoy was reading out the names of the riders still in contention. Gilbert was still there, as were Sanchez, Nibali, Scarponi et al but there was no mention of Mar-teen. Not good!

The race came through Como near the finish are before heading out again to take in the San Fermo Di Battaglia climb. As they sped down into the town in now torrential rain Gilbert was out in front with Scarponi riding away from a group containing Nibali. The rain was so bad my heart was in my mouth waiting for someone, rider or vehicle, to lose it but thankfully no-one did.

A sea of umbrellas watching the race on the big screen

Back at the finish, we got a spot just after the line and settled down to watch the finale unfold on the big screen. Of course, Gilbert asserted his dominance by simply riding away from Scarponi and, after a nail biting descent, had time to assert his number one status for the cameras before crossing the line to take two in row.

Phillipe Gilbert is congratulated by his soigneur after taking victory

Over the next few minutes a procession of bedraggled riders rolled over the line, some, like Vincenzo Nibale, visibly shivering from the cold. I'll bet they were never so glad to get the final race of the season over.

Not too many were left around to see the podium presentations but for Gilbert, the sounds of the Belgian anthem marked another step in his road to becoming one of the great classics riders. Sean Kelly opened my eyes to the joys of Lombardy and, in Gilbert, I see a rider in his image. A tough, gutsy rider able to win in all conditions on just about any terrain.

From left: Michele Scarpone (2nd), Phillipe Gilbert (1st) and Pablo Lastras (3rd)

By the way, after the start my good camera packed in for the day. All shots from then on were taken on my HTC Legend phone so apologies for the poor quality of some of them.


1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 6:46:32
2. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli @ 12 secs
3. Pablo Lastras Garcia (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne @ 55 secs
4. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Team Saxo Bank @ 1 min 8 secs
DNF Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin Transitions