Bec-Hill-Climb-David-Millar

David Millar’s Hill Climb Farewell

An array of baked goods to make the Womens’ Institute weep, that was the point at which I noted just how eccentric British cycling still is in the era of ‘Wiggins Cool’. The cake stall perched precariously on White Lane’s foreboding gradient offered its ‘anti-bonk’ remedies at prices fitting of the inaugural open Bec CC Hill Climb in 1956. The sight which would have met any stranger peeping through the surrounding woodland would have been a surreal one for the uninitiated; a variety of men and women in garish lycra. Most attempting their best to sashay down the soggy leaf strewn hill upon rigid cleats, icy expressions disguising the peril at the prospect of slipping; sending hot tea and Victoria sponge skywards before the gathered crowd of self-proclaimed cycling buffs.

There is one man however who appears separate from the ongoing raft of peacocking enthusiasts; dapper and happily chatting with friends – the man is David Millar. A drizzly country lane in the middle of nowhere, hidden by a stretching canopy of indecisive autumnal leaves. Those which have fallen, now form a path of burnt amber cobbles which pave this vicious tongue of slicked tarmac. It is not just summer which ends here today.

David Millar is arguably Britain’s finest export to a cycling mad continent, yet there are no droves of people swarming around the charismatic Scot here, just the casual nod or smile of familiarity over butter icing and steam. He is the only British born rider to have worn all three Grand Tour leader’s jerseys, a career which could justify a bold and brash statement – statues, monuments, velodromes could all bear the name ‘David Millar’. But no, an understated cycling fête is instead the last hurrah; but why should he deem such a modest action so fitting?

Though a great, his name remains burdened by decisions of a past-life within the sport, a contributing factor to this modest departure perhaps. Doping stories cut through cycling’s history and its riders like the estuaries and tributaries of the Dutch coast. The professional redemption of David Millar has been well documented, primarily due to the positive impact he has had upon the sport and other riders who have found themselves boxed into similarly compromising positions. However, not everyone is so easily forgiving when looking upon Millar’s past; his critics accuse the British mainstream cycling press of being overly eager to serve the veteran his redemption so swiftly.

The UK’s recent spike of interest for the sport has resulted in a greater amount of public opinion of David Millar’s doping, but not necessarily one which is informed by experience of the era in which these crimes occurred. A growing notion of ‘one strike and you are out’ is understandable for people who have come to the sport before the backdrop of Armstrong’s downfall and the disintegration of a hierarchy which knowingly protected him. Though such crimes committed in a post-Armstrong era may well be treated more black and white, to convict or redeem any individual similar to Millar is an intensely complex debate.

It is a struggle to decide whether I truly remember David Millar pre-suspension; vicariously acquired memories from Eurosport’s highlights as a child being more likely. His career since however has a designated area of my mind to itself, earned by stylish time trials and breakaways garnished with panache. Though I enjoyed the sight of racing as a child, people such as Lance Armstrong or Jan Ulrich held little fascination for me, thus I desperately needed somebody to back.

The concept of supporting an entire team is new to the world of cycling, born predominantly from the brand dominance of Rapha and Team Sky. Drawing in the middle aged man who applies the same notion as backing your local Football or Rugby team. Unlike supporting a club which represents where in the world you come from, as well as a raft of common stereotypes, cycling has always been focused upon backing riders which exhibit the attributes you find iconic in a competitor. For me, David Millar expressed what I thought a true athlete should when in the midst of competition; he was equally determined when sacrificing all for a team leader, as he was when attacking with his nose to the grindstone.

But most of all, he remained a gentlemen of the peloton at all times, never inclined to benefit from another’s misfortune; nor shy away when things had gone wrong. Eloquent enough to inform and educate cycling fans; I was never interested in how the bland Armstrong had won another stage, tactical analysis and honesty of the day’s struggles was (still is) more engrossing.

Two hours had passed while standing on White Lane beneath the lazy drizzle. Between each rider’s moment of heroics, memories of Millar bubbled with greater effervescence. Yellow jerseys won against the clock, a disastrous mechanical in the miserable Italian rain, victory written in the name of Tom Simpson. Perhaps holding command of the British squad in Copenhagen will be looked most fondly upon, turning years of qualification points into a rainbow jersey made alchemy look child’s play. A lifelong blur of medals, jerseys, podiums and mountains of all kinds would appear to warrant a similarly extraordinary farewell gesture. That is exactly what it got.

Though a bamboozling announcement at first, ending his career in the middle of nowhere amongst a crowd of enthusiasts who consider waiting in a lay-by on a Sunday morning fun, it became obvious how typically ‘Millar-ish’ this move was. The great Scot had ignited his career when cycling  (especially Time Trialling) was a rather eccentric British past time for the few who did pursue it. Since then, Britain’s profile has grown to gargantuan proportions on both the road and track; bearing the household names of Wiggins, Trott, Froome and Pendleton. Yet one facet of the sport has remained uniquely British, untouched by the globalisation of the nation’s riders as a product; the Hill Climb.

A lung busting event perpetuated by the amateur, bereft of the effortless scything of air heard at road races, the soundtrack to a Hill Climb is the gasping of bodies attempting to draw in any extra ounce of energy from the gathered crowd. These riders’ engine rooms were screaming for more when nothing was left to give, while some seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, faces yet to be etched deep with the effort until the top had been crested. Other members of the Millar clan, clad in the effortlessly cool VC Rocacorba livery, had already done their best to soften the gradient for David’s run. The conveyor belt of those brave (or stupid) enough to challenge White Lane had been rapid, now providing everyone with the sudden dawning of who was next to duel this tarmac tongued beast.

Steadily at first, at the base of the hill, where out of sight a soft gale was blowing. This was no meteorological event, it was historic, Millar was on course. With the passing of thirty seconds this gale had built to a howling Mistral as a rangy figure broke through the foliage some distance below. Whether wall or Willow, brother or sister, everything was a perch in an attempt to see the main attraction. Never will I again hear such a cacophony emanate from a country lane in the middle of nowhere, like a unifying battle cry willing David Millar to the summit, they wanted this man to win.

 

Within the space of three seconds he was in front of me, parallel and then gone. Leaving the crowd to crane their ears towards the tannoy in anticipation of Millar’s time once he had burst past the cake stand and across the finish line. It was modest, he had not turned up to claim the win or trophy, rather to leave us with something instead. A glorious spark in time which put one of Britain’s finest riders before the backdrop of one of the nation’s most bizarre pursuits. He had ensured himself a farewell alongside fans who appreciated why he had chosen this gesture to draw a curtain across his career.

David Millar was once a keen enthusiast waiting in a lay-by for the start of his time trial. He has since accumulated a treasure trove of merits from the top tier of cycling, in both his darkest times and brightest too. But by riding the Bec CC Hill Climb he achieved possibly the most impressive feat of all; stepping back in time and becoming an amateur once more.

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Fernando Alonso Is Still Chasing His Tail

Fernando Alonso’s ambitions of starting his own WorldTour team seem to have been stuck in limbo for a long time now, but it is no surprise when you see why. The general consensus of many outlets regarding the project was that it had been left dead in the water after a failed takeover of Euskaltel-Euskadi and an uphill struggle with the UCI to gain a licence. Project ‘FACT’ (Fernando Alonso Cycling Team) cannot sign any riders until a license has been granted by the UCI but he also cannot start to register a team without riders already secured; hence the never-ending tail chasing.

Starting a team is proving harder than a downhill selfie for Alonso.

Starting a team is proving harder than a downhill selfie for Alonso.

 

It certainly is not unusual in recent years for a team to be born and racing in the space of a year, with a full rosta of riders such as Team Sky in 2010 or Orica-Greenedge in 2012, but it is a hefty task. It appears that Alonso’s original flurry of activity in 2013 to sign riders and capture the Euskaltel-Euskadi licence hit his ambitions hard, certainly when it came to securing the required sponsorship to perform at the level he desires. However, the rumoured investment from a Dubai sponsor has restarted the attempts to sign some riders up this month and the race is now on for Alonso to finalise deals, if he wishes to see his team racing come 2015. Leaving his contract talks until after this year’s Le Tour de France has not been a wise move, as many riders will have already landed contracts to ensure their place amongst 2015’s peloton. Despite these negative factors, FACT is an attractive option for a rider should the €20 million budget be true and with Belkin folding and Germin/Cannondale merging, Fernando Alonso may find himself picking up a few stars along the way.

Mollema Makes His Move & More

In a quite unexpected announcement, Bauke Mollema has turned his back on the previous seven years with Dutch outfit Belkin/Rabobank and has signed a two year deal with Trek Factory Racing as of 2015.

A move which may put a smile on his face.

A move which may put a smile on his face.

Such a signing would indicate that Trek are finally willing to ditch their backing of Frank and Andy Schleck and instead turn to the Dutch mountain man, with a taste for the classics, as their GC hope. Frank Schleck was of course suspended for the use of a possible masking agent, while his brother’s misfortune has left Andy thinking of dropping back to ProContinental racing in an attempt to recover from a range of career sapping injuries.

The signing of Mollema will also lead to increased activity from Trek Factory Racing, in order to bolster their support ranks if they wish to build a team to put the Dutchman closer to the podium than this year’s 21mins+ deficeit to Vincenzo Nibali.

Sagan Signed?

The worst kept secret of this year’s transfer window has to be Oleg Tinkov’s ambitions to sign Peter Sagan from Cannondale. The general consensus is that this deal has been completed for some time now, primarily due to the Cannondale/Garmin merger which probably help swing Sagan’s mind and we are just waiting on confirmation. Expect an announcement to come over the course of this weeks Tour de Pologne if this is the case, but the real questions are; Can Saxo-Tinkoff operate with Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador in the same race? And is Fernando Alonso’s mysterious team still lurking in the shadows for Peter Sagan?

Speaking of Cannondale, their most combative and swashbuckling rider of this year’s Tour de France, Alessandro De Marchi has now left them to join BMC along with Garmin’s Rohan Dennis. With Cadel Evans on the cusp of retirement (please somebody make him!) and Tejay Van Garderen falling short of his potential currently, BMC certainly seem to be making some sound investments for future Grand Tours.

Out With A Bang – Le Tour Stage 18

The last day in the mountains offers the riders quality over quantity in terms of the mountain passes today. After the previous days in the Pyrenees, the early Cat 3 climbs will barely be perceivable by a bunch acclimatised to the unrelating kilometres of sustained climbing followed by taxing descending. Despite the HC summit finish at Hautacam, all eyes are focused upon the legendary Col du Tourmalet where podium contenders may be left short by a pushed tempo from Vincenzo Nibali, though the real battles will come between Alejandro Valverde, Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud.

Two Big Questions To Be Answered.

Two Big Questions To Be Answered.

The Tourmalet is a deceptive climb, with the road heading skywards before they have barely begun the approach, but these first 5km are not to be trusted as the riders are lured into a comfortable rhythm. It soon becomes apparent after this that Col du Tourmalet is an entirely different beast, by the time they reach the 10km mark its true colours show through with 10% gradients. It will have an impact upon the GC, but it may not become apparent until the peloton turn onto the climb up to the summit finish. Descending will be rapid, offering AG2R another opportunity to expose the supposed weakness of Thibaut Pinot, though he has not appeared to struggle with the downhill so far.

A Legendary Climb.

A Legendary Climb.

Ascending Hautacam is an arduous task of ever-changing gradients and ramps which will leave riders struggling to find the right gear or rhythm the whole way up. Though sections are officially marked as 10% – 11%, the reality of the climb sees parts even in excess of this, meaning the 5% parts will be light relief after double digits. It is a brutal climb which will ask serious questions of those fighting for the win as to when to attack and how hard; whoever wins will require a display of brains as well as brawn.

A Surprise Victor Will Be Crowned.

A Surprise Victor Will Be Crowned.

The Contenders:

In terms of profile, the stage suits a breakaway staying away for the majority of today, before the inevitably diminished group duels for the win atop Hautacam. Col du Tourmalet will have a large impact upon the GC attackers, but given the long descent down into the final climb, its effects will only be felt once the contenders start getting out of the saddle and discover they have been robbed of energy for the last ascent. Other than a Vincenzo Nibali stage win today, it would appear that Rafal Majka has secured the Polka Dots for a team who must have been panicking once Alberto Contador climbed into the team car; he and Joaquim Rodriguez will stay amongst the pack with the ‘dots’ competition over.

Vincenzo Nibali could sit back and watch the fireworks today as Thibaut Pinot, Jéan-Christophe Peraud, Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet all test each other’s nerve for the sake of the podium in anticipation of the time-trial. But Nibali seems eager to display his dominance at every opportunity, so it would not come as much of a surprise if he surpasses the in-fighting to sail away towards increasing his time gap even further.

With the Polka Dots finished, Yellow Jersey firmly glued to the little Italian’s shoulders and little chance of movement in the top 20 of GC; it seems like ANYBODY could make the break today. Radioshack, Garmin and Sky could all do with making themselves known in the escapees after below-par and injury ravaged tours. No doubt a French presence will be apparent with Europcar, Cofidis or Bretagne-Séché putting a rider or two up the road in hope of a stage win.

Ultimately, the fireworks amongst the general classification is guaranteed in order to cement podium hopes, but (beyond being clairvoyant) I cannot see anybody managing to pick the day’s victor.

 

 

 

Dare To Stay Away – Le Tour Stage 16

The Pyrenees make their first appearance of this year’s tour today with two more consecutive days in the region to test the legs of the mountain men. Carcassonne to Bagnéres-de-Luchon’s passage through the peaks is testing, but not tough enough to lure the major contenders into duking it out for big time gaps so soon.

The Day's Profile

The Day’s Profile

Despite not quite concluding with a summit finish, the stage is crowned by the HC category Port de Balés, likely to be the scene of flagging riders upon its slopes. It is not the length of the climb nor the steepest ramps, but rather the fluctuating gradients of the mountain which will cause so much damage as riders struggle to find their rhythm to tackle it.

Hard To Judge.

Hard To Judge

Polka Dots and Stage Wins:

Given the more testing terrain over the next two days for the GC riders to battle upon, today’s stage lends itself to a quite large breakaway making it the whole way to contest the finish. Despite the Polka Dot competition being tied heading into today, it is likely that Joaquim Rodriguez is likely to keep his powered try for the following days; though Rafal Majka may be tempted to go ahead of the bunch briefly in order to claim it by the end of the day. 

Teams who find their original Tour goals scuppered already while see today has a real chance to make their presence this year worthwhile after all. Sky, Garmin, Saxo and OPQS are the biggest teams likely to attempt something today with the likes of Nicolas Roche, Michael Rogers, Mikel Nieve, Tom Jelte-Slagter, Ramunas Navardauskas may be spotted in the day’s breakaway. A French representation is inevitable with such a strong chance of staying away all day, Europcar will be looking to put Thomas Voeckler or Cyril Gautier in mix come the finale. Michal Kwiatkowski gave a telling interview after Stage 15 which hinted heavily at going for a stage win in the remaining mountain days; however today’s topography does not look testing enough to interesting him.

There should not be much jostling by the GC guys today, though it may be worth watching Romain Bardet on the descent as he may attempt to expose Thibaut Pinot’s weaknesses once more in order to gain time. Bardet is well aware that he is the weakest of the GC contenders when it comes to time-trialing, so will be on the lookout to gain as much of a cushion as possible before the penultima day’s race against the clock.

 

Everything To Lose – Le Tour Stage 10

The opening nine days will have seemed like minor scraps compared to the leg breaking profile which faces the peloton today. Five categorised climbs in most stages would be ruthless, but with a finish upon La Planche Des Belles Filles to top them off, Stage 10 is going to reveal the tour’s real contenders come the end. Those who have not managed to partake in the breakaways over the previous two days will form another kamikaze attempt for early King of The Mountains points, despite the slim chance of staying away until the end. Teams riding for General Classification will simply control the pack over Col du Platzervasel and Col d’Orderen in anticipation of an explosive finish once La Planche Des Belles Filles comes to the forefront of their minds’.

One of the most testing days of this year's Tour.

One of the most testing days of this year’s Tour.

Col des Chevrères is a climb which Prudhomme included in an attempt to instigate early duels between the favourites without having stepped foot into neither the Alps nor Pyrenees; possibly witnessing a tentative attack due to being within spitting distance of La Planche Des Belles Filles. 10.5km long and possessing a maximum gradient of 20%, it’s easy to appreciate Thierry Gouvenou’s comparison with the Angliru.

Opportunity to inflict damage.

Opportunity to inflict damage.

It is no overstatement to suggest that riders could lose the Tour by the time they finish atop La Planche Des Belles Filles tomorrow afternoon. The climb is an agonising mix of sustained climbing, steep gradients (which reach 20%) and deceptive false flats. Those wishing to take the win here will need immense tactical nous in order to calculate when to attack, who to attack and how hard.

Everyone will be watching as the leaders turn onto here.

Everyone will be watching as the leaders turn onto here.

The Challengers:

Those who have shipped time in the previous week could try to gain time back here or readjust their GC ambitions towards stage wins instead. Though Astana, Tinkoff and Sky will do their upmost to ensure nobody gets too far ahead who could be considered a threat. It seemed like Alberto Contador sensed a certain level of weakness when finishing Stage 8 and will look to exploit any such findings in the final run-in tomorrow. Vincenzo Nibali will be glad that the burden of the yellow jersey was lifted from him by Tony Gallopin and will only need to equal Contador’s, rather than worry about every possible attack from his main rival. Let us not forget that the last time Le Tour went up La Planche Des Belles Filles, Nibali finished 4th only 7 seconds back. Richie Porte went surprisingly well up the steep finale of Stage 8’s Gérardmer La Mauselaine, but is much better suited to the sustain gradients of today; possibly being a dark horse for the stage win. 

Tomorrow is of course Bastille Day in France, Gallopin has achieved the French dream of having the yellow jersey draped upon national shoulders, but they will want more. Pierre Rolland was within a minute of Chris Froome when he won on this final climb in 2012 and is also in need of making more time up; that is if his GC claims are serious. Thibaut Pinot and Tony Gallopin also achieved high placings on the day and were out of the pack yesterday looking lively so could threaten. The former is very handy when the climb upwards is not followed by the down and the latter may be more consumed by damage limitation while in yellow. Tommy Voeckler will be filled with national pride as per usual, so expect some sort of against-the-odds attack by him too.

Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Tejay Van Garderen, Bauke Mollema and Andrew Talansky all need to make up time soon if they wish to keep much hope of finishing in the Top Ten, let alone challenging for a podium place. Rein Taaramae would suit a breakaway on a day such as this, but his form is one of the hardest things to judge in professional cycling so a bet may not be wise. Garmin and NetApp still seem to be teetering on upsetting the favourites with a shock win, but just have not committed enough to such an idea yet. With Leopold Konig and Andrew Talansky still focused heavily upon general classification, their team-mates could still be too heavily tethered to the leaders for a real chance at today.

Overall, tomorrow will see the real contenders emerge as others see their ambitions shipwrecked before the first rest day. Those who perform convincingly tomorrow will be the ones to contest the yellow jersey in the Alps and Pyrenees this year. As it stands, we are only estimating the form and talent of riders so far; once tomorrow is finished we will have an idea of who will win the tour and he may just be king of La Planche Des Belles Filles.

Who Wants It? – Le Tour Stage 9

Appearing on the page like the contents of a Crocodile’s jaw, Stage 9 barely offers the riders a flat stretch of road in the opening 130km. Despite the six categorised climbs, today never really injects super-steep ramps into the legs of the peloton which shelled a few riders yesterday, grinding the gears will be the approach instead. The terrain should play into the hands of a reasonably sized breakaway, as will the likely crosswinds which may cause issues in the peloton. The climbs may provide them with contrasting slopes (uphill v downhill) to the chasing pack behind; Le Markstein could be a likely catching place however if the break is not fully functional. Concluding with a 20km flat section after the final long descent, breakaways may start to fall apart as individuals try to avoid towing rivals to the line while simultaneously dodging the catch. Depending upon the contents of the breakaway, Astana may have to work harder than expected today in order to prevent a dark horse gaining time or even sneaking into the jersey. Truly an open day for a variety of riders and styles, offering the viewer a dramatic finish as outsiders duke it out for an unexpected win.

Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

 

Candidates:

Tony Martin has been on the leash so far for the sake of OPQS’s sprint ambitions and keeping an eye on Kwiatkowski; today however could see him instigate an early break through the frantic start and time trial solo to the end,

Garmin have certainly lacked impact so far, that is excluding Talansky’s impacts upon the ground, today could be their chance to sneak in their typically unexpected Grand Tour win. Ramūnas Navardauskas certainly fits the mould of a breakaway rider for the day and is usually pretty handy when it comes to a select bunch kick. Tom Jelte-Slagter was somewhat of a disappointment yesterday, but did not seem totally out of contention and may have targeted today’s more generous slopes as an opportunity to win this year.

Alessandro De Marchi has a similar tale to Tony Martin in regards to his recent job requirements for Peter Sagan. If allowed to attack today while Cannondale protect Sagan in the pack, De Marchi could be involved with a move, but a win may be too far.

Team Europcar were blown away yesterday early on and subsequently lost any hope of a decent GC placing this year. With such pressure now lifted, they may decide to push on for a stage win today with the likes of Pierre Rolland and Cyril Gautier more than able.

Sylvain Chavanel has been a joy to watch over the last few days, excelling beyond his years to be part of several key moves. It would not be a surprise should he manage to sneak into yet another breakaway, but would have to play some canny tactics in order to win. Thoughts on Greg Van Avermaet are very similar and appears to be in relatively good form, the relentless climbing might be a step too far though today.

A raft of others who may be crucial in the outcome of Stage 9 still remains though, as team’s goals have altered due to the war of attrition in this first week. Katusha have been lacking so far, Simon Spilak though is likely to have a bash at today should the opportunity arise. Bretagne Seche have quietened down since the opening couple of days, but a wildcard for today could appear in the shape of Brice Feillu who has recovered some reasonable form as of late and will be looking to add to his solitary 2009 tour win.

It is unlikely to see any battling between the major GC contenders, but Alberto Contador looked strong yesterday and may wish to test Vincenzo Nibali once more before the final descent. Though most will be looking to save their legs for a horrendously important stage to Les Planches des Belles Filles tomorrow.