Fresh and Wild

Yesterday I saw what can best be described as a charm offensive from tourist executives in the US. A folk singer beckons us to come to the land of the free to realise our dreams. No offence intended to my US readers but this struck me as a little fake. And this was reinforced by its screening in an ad break during the Giro d’Italia. As charm offensives go, the Giro is a total success in my book – great scenery, lovely weather, enthusiastic and expressive spectators, the only thing missing is the food and drink. As you can tell, I am hooked.

My love affair with Italy has been recent, a combination of honeymoon, simple veggie friendly cooking and of course the cycling. Though Italian cycling for many years didn’t mean much to me. Of course I knew about the Giro, I’d seen reports of classics like Lombardy and Milan-San Remo but it had never featured as much as the Tour de France. Maybe that is the product of growing up in the UK and following the limited cycling coverage available. To me the Tour de France came top but the Kellogg’s Tour and, if you remember them, the Scottish Provident criteriums seemed more real even than Miguel Indurain’s tussle with Tony Rominger down the boot of Europe. To be honest, these seemed like training rides in the build up to the big event. And that’s a feeling that has taken a long time to shake. Just as I’ve previously indicated how the season seems to end by August, the Italian races were an hors d’oeuvres to the main event, the cheap support act.  But no more.

This year’s Giro d’Italia has changed my thinking for good.  With its bold selection of route and in its acceptance of which riders who will come, this year’s race has been spectacular. Whilst there has been no one stand out moment like, for example, Lemond’s final day win in the ’89 (and my first) Tour de France (yet*), the twists and turns in all aspects of the race have been intriguing. And the riders have added to this. Mark Cavendish remains in the race long after others with GC ambitions have pulled out and his continued participation in what was considered a warm up to the Tour-Olympics dominated July should be considered a mark of how good this race is. It has offered a fresh approach to racing, one made all the fresher by the absence of some of the so-called big names. Ironically this is the definition of True Racing that others merely apply as a tag.

And a significant feature of this has been the selection of wild card teams. When this selection was announced there was some outcry in Italy at the teams who were left out.  In particular the exclusion of Acqua & Sapone and previous Giro winners Danilo di Luca and Stefano Garzelli was greeted with surprise and threatened retirements. Yet the teams included have done the wildcard tag proud.

Admittedly this did not start well. Androni’s Roberto Ferrari was certainly wild in his antics on stage 3 and questions were soon asked about his inclusion and the worth of his team. But over three weeks these episodes start to pale. Whilst the pocket climbers of Androni have been conspicuous by their absence this year, Ferrari has grabbed a stage and Alessandro Di Marchi has been in 2 main moves on high mountain stages. Far from being the “who are they” team when the wildcards were announced, Team NetApp have covered almost every break in the race and in so doing covered themselves in glory and reaffirmed their selection. Despite the loss of their team leader, Filippo Pozzato, Farnese Vini have been in the attacks, had 2 stages wins and surely the moment of this year’s race when Matteo Rabottini out on his own for the day and having looked totally spent hit back at Joaquin Rodriguez’s final attack by finding, from where we can only guess, a final burst to clinch the stage. And Colnago-CSF, whilst also having been in much of the daily action, have placed Domenico Pozzovivo in the heart of the battle for the pink jersey – whilst he may not take it he certainly made the battle tougher for the others tougher at the top of the Passo Giau. These are teams who have earned their way into the Giro and when there have done their inclusion justice with their fresh and wild approach to racing.

There’s still 2 days and a bit to go in this year’s race and things may change for the worse but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the Giro d’Italia is better than the Tour de France. Whilst its big it isn’t too big to go through – and finish in – the centre of towns. Its produced racing that has been non-stop, interesting and enthralling. It has shown that great racing doesn’t always need “big names”. Whilst last year I find myself looking back on last year’s Tour in much the same way now as I felt then, I can’t help but feel that even if it is not a classic this Giro has reignited my interest in racing.

So here’s to true racing, the Italian (and with Net App, the German!) way. I’ll raise a glass of Chianti to that.

* As I write this watching the 19th stage, Sunday’s time trial could yet produce similar!

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Risk and Responsibility?

How do you write a post which raises issues which many people will feel need talking about but for which you feel the time might not be right? I’ve been mulling over this post for a few days following the tragic death on Monday of Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’Italia. I hope it is a considered piece which takes into account some of the responses seen in the media, both professional and blogosphere/twitterati since this incident. I know I run the risk of losing some readers and followers as a result but I hope it opens up a mature and sensible discussion on this one incident and some issues which are strongly connected to it.

Monday’s events were for many of us who follow cycling truly shocking. Nobody expects to see a rider killed in a race.  As so many others I can only imagine the pain that Weylandt’s family and friends must be going through and nothing can make that process any easier for them. I do not wish for one minute to detract from their grief.

However, the coverage that has followed has been mixed.  Having criticised David Harmon in a previous post this year I, like others, can only praise the way in which he commentated on an extremely difficult situation for any reporter, let alone someone who is covering a sporting event.  There have been several blog pieces which have followed. Yesterday I highlighted the piece by Flammecast. Today I saw another piece by Ian Claverly in Rouleur magazine.  Both thoughtful, reflective and definitive in their own way.  Yet on the other hand there have been some very quick reactions and whilst I initially felt that it was too early to write around them, I think the debate needs to be tempered and balanced in a number of ways.

Firstly, from the reports that have emerged the only definitive thing we can say about Weylandt’s accident was that it was freak bad luck.  Unfortunately we cannot legislate for bad luck. A moments lack of concentration, as would appear to be the cause of this, is something we are all prone to in life. Immediately after the stage Angelo Zomegnan, director of the Giro, stated “”Since the crash, we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the security measures already in place are being checked and reinforced by specialist teams.” What more could be done in the name of security I am nsure and as we have all witnessed in the coverage, medical teams were on the scene within seconds.  Nor will a knee jerk reaction to make “safer bikes”, as uttered by the UCI president himself and in doing so promotes his bike labelling scheme. I have yet to see any connection to component or frame failure over and above what might happen given the materials already used and approved by the governing body.

The second element relates to the safety of the parcours.  I do not know first or even second hand what the road surface was like on the descent where the accident took place.  Some say it was potholed and needed resurfacing.  Unfortunately again this is a fact of life.  Racing takes place on public roads not bespoke venues or courses.  To this end we have to make do with what is available.  As any of you who ride on public roads know too well, potholes and poor surfaces are part of the deal.  During the time of fiscal crisis for public authorities this is unlikely to get better.  There would appear to be no quick fix in this regard without investment by organisers, governing bodies and teams.  Furthermore, there is some criticism of the routes being chosen by some race organisers and Zomegnan in particular has come in for criticism that he is putting spectacle above safety.  There may be some truth in that.  Yet consider yesterday’s stage across the Strade Bianche – as a spectator tell me you didn’t like that spectacle either this year or last? Yet the riders criticised parts of the parcours for being dangerous.  There is a balance to be struck part of which is with the race organisers in their choice of route but equally the riders must take some responsibility in riding the conditions as they are.

But the final point is perhaps the hardest to raise and I only mean to do this in a tactful and meaningful way, not as an attack on any individual or group nor to belittle the problem it addresses.  Yesterday Team Leopard-Trek announced a “donation account” for contributions with a statement that: “We have created a donation account to support them financially as much as we can. Everyone of you can donate to this account. All donations will go directly to Wouter’s family.” Clearly this is an important issue. Like so many of us Wouter was doing a job because he had financial responsibilities.  Yet what has perturbed me is the lack of clarity about this account and as cycling fans what exactly is our role in this account?  In debating this with others on Twitter part of the discussion has focused on insurance.  Some people have argued that insurance and assurance is the responsibility of the rider as it is with you and I.  Yet if we were killed doing our jobs, under a duty of care our employers would likely have insurance coverage to compensate for this.  So is this not the case in cycling?  Team Leopard-Trek is back by a group of multi-milionaires and sponsored by a large bike manufacturer.  Rider deaths are thankfully few so is it the proper thing for the public being asked to contribute when it remains unclear what the team is doing to ensure the appropriate financial security for his family?  When I put this question out on Twitter earlier one of the responses that got me thinking was from @ivromc who said: “they should allow the cycling public to express themselves in more than words. Let’s see them match the money raised.”  So here we have the desire for fans to express their grief and the responsibilities of an employer.  This is the crucial differentiation here: Weylandt’s family do need some financial security which should be a matter of insurance; our abilities to express grief might be better placed in some other memorial.  In this situation we are not all as lucky as Weylandt.  Let me briefly put this into perspective: the same day that the Save a Cyclist campaign reported Weylandt’s death on their Facebook page they also reported the death of 35 year old woman in London on her way to work.  Unlike Wouter her death did not have global news coverage nor did it grab our attention yet it would have just as huge an impact on the lives of her families and friends and potentially the same financial ramifications.  Therefore I’m not criticising those who want to contribute but this needs some perspective, some balance and some thought about whose responsibilities and what outcomes are needed in this process.

Life is a game of risk.  Without that risk much of life would be boring.  We cannot eliminate all risk not would we want to.  Some parts can be better controlled.  Unfortunately much of it has to manoeuvred around.  Wouter Weylandt dies doing the job he loved.  We watched him and his colleagues doing this and it gave us pleasure.  We need to recognise our role in this but also know where the boundaries begin and end.  I hope I have not angered you through this piece but I felt it needed a place in the debate.

Rain stop play

Not that I was even about to venture out on the bike this weekend and the rain is doing its best to scupper the best laid plans of Mrs AB and me.  The plan was to get up early this morning, hit the local garden centre to acquire some vitally needed supplies and then hit the allotment to plant out the next batch of crops and all before heading home for a “not for the faint hearted” appointment with te Giro d’Ialia.  However, as I sit here typing this, part one of the plan was delayed.  We have achieved part two of the plan and I never knew netting a) came in so many forms and b) was so costly. Part four is still booked in and I really do hope Dve Harmon was right yesterday and I don’t waste the afternoon in front of the magic box.  But part 3 has been postponed.  Much like a Test Match in England or Tennis at Wimbledon, allotment has been delayed by rain.  There seems to be a pattern to this weeks posts and probably gives you the impression I have an aversion to rain.  I could blame Mrs AB and say it is all her doing, but alas that is wrong and I too have some dislike for the wet, particularly when I know that it will involve mud which sticks to your boots worse than a Flanders field.  No, we are telling ourselves the Metcheck.com is correct and it is merely a delay of between a few hours and tomorrow morning.  And so to use the time both wisely and recreationally.  I’ve got my place booked on the sofa and Mrs AB is making us both what she describes as a lazy lunch (beans, scrambled egg and sausage on toast) – this is all good. The bit I need to do is stay relaxed and calm.  I’m not good at relaxing. I recognise this. Its something I need to conquer in a paradoxical way. So this is the opportunity and relaxation is now today’s challenge and I’m determined to win!

Road to the stars

Well its official, summer is definitely here and the end of May is turning into a scorcher.  Yesterday it was 28 degrees and Mrs AB and I managed to spend much of it in Birmingham on a futile shopping trip.  The day was saved by lunch, coffee and a catch up with friends (Lauren and Leo) at Urban Coffee,drinks on the terrace with our neighbours and some stargazing with Mrs AB’s grandad’s telescope.  (If you’ve never looked at the moon through a telescope before you should – it is truly spectacular!).

So with the temperature threatening much of the same today it was up and out early this morning for a ride.  I’m pleased that I actually got on the bike, even more pleased that I did 28 miles and over the moon that I was back before coffee time.  I don’t hink I could have stood the heat as it is now.  It was a good ride, an undulating circuit around Codsall, Boscobel, Albrighton and Pattingham. I even felt good on the hills.

Passing what seemed like every Wolverhampton based cyclist on their respective ways out for the day reminded me of something else I love about not just cycling but walking too – the friendliness with which we greet one another.  Okay, there are a few miserable so and so’s who never say hello, but the majority do – and even to two chaps I passed on the hill towards Perton were cheery (I think) as the struggled up a nasty little incline.  Plenty of people have talked about the camaraderie of the cycling fraternity.  I know not on what it is based but it always feels nice to exchange a hello and a wave.  So for the couple of miseries I did pass, please take note – its a win-win situation for us all.

However, I do have to report two notable problems today.  The first is to the driver of the blue covertible “Mini” – when a cyclist waves to tell you not to pass it is for a reason not to be obstinate and obstructive.  In this case it was the presence of 3 oncoming vehicles which you could not see around the blind bend, particularly not at the speed with which you were approaching.  And the hand signals you used are not listed in the Highway Code.

The second is to Eurosport.  I was looking forward to a couple of hours watching today’s stage 15 of the Giro d’Italia – perhaps the definitive stage of the race finishing on the beast which is Mont Zoncolan.  Why then are you chosing not only to avoid live coverage replacing it with Formula 2 GP and the first round of the French Open tennis, but also cramming the action into a programme of less than one hour tonight (which no doubt in true Eurosport will be cut even further to show Darts on Ice from Helsinki)?  We are not amused.  Looks like its off to Sporza for a bit of Belgian coverage via the internet and my convoluted road to the stars.  In the meantime, off to check Mrs AB’s handworking painting the new shed.