Big wheels hot to trot

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The world’s best cyclists — male and female — are making Australian sports fans lose sleep again, says IAN COHEN, on the spot in France:

While footy of all codes dominates the headlines in a winter wrapped Australia, here in the heat haze of Europe the pedal power grabs all the headlines.

We are underway again with some of the bravest athletes in sport desperately trying not to mix lycra and asphalt in a brace of epic struggles, across two nations.

Cycling reaches its zenith this month, with two of the largest sporting events on the calendar – the Tour de France and the Giro Rosa.

Cafes and bars run the TV during the day, and nightly news services, radio updates and newspapers bring details of the superstar household names (at least over here) and their conquests.

I know you will have heard of Le Tour, and we will get to that in a moment – but the Giro Rosa is now the longest and most prestigious women’s race of the year and is entering its 30th edition.

This blue ribband event is based around the north of Italy, pushing the female limits for 10 days – in comparison most women’s events are 5-6 days long.

It was won last year by Annemiek van Vleuten, a Dutch superstar riding for Mitchelton-Scott, the team with the ‘Aussie DNA’ created by Gerry Ryan nearly a decade ago.

Van Vleuten is full of confidence as one of the best riders on the planet. She is the defending champion after smashing the opposition last year and may yet be finishing in the famous pink leaders jersey again this year.

The 36-year-old flying Dutchwoman is a complete rider with skills in time trial, climbing and an amazing all round ability to read and dictate a race on her terms.

And she is more than ably supported by some Australian favorites – MTS are a team of world beating women, with the likes of Lucy Kennedy who won the Lexus of Blackburn Women’s Herald Sun Tour this year and Amanda Spratt, who features on most world championship podiums and was third here in 2018.

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She rides for the Boels-Dolmans team and her record is outstanding – she has won this event twice, took gold in Rio in 2016 and at the World Championships in 2018 – a tough and well credentialed opponent

They are both wonderful exponents, but Van Vleuten will have the edge in the time trial.

Others who may vie for honors include local hope Elisa Longo Borghini and South African Ashleigh Moolman Pasio.

Standby for some outstanding women’s sport over the next week – and while you are glued to all the action from France, have an eye on what is going on across the border as the women go head to head.

So, who will make it tough for the Mitchelton-Scott veteran to go back to back? The most likely answer lies in fellow Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen, and the pair have had some titanic struggles over recent times.

Now to the men, and the Tour De France is an event like no other – a wonderful logistic juggernaut claiming over 3 billion in TV audience and watched across nearly 200 countries.

Australians tuning in will be trying to survive the wee hours of the morning with the razor sharp statistical analysis of Matthew Keenen and the gladiatorial insights of former sprint star and Green jersey winner Robbie McEwan.

This year is a wide-open affair due to the recent withdrawal of the amazing Tom Dumoulin who’s body would not let him ride, and the sensational crash that saw a busted femur and ribs end the season of five time champion Chris Froome.

Aussie hopes will again be linked with the Mitchelton-Scott line up, although the lead riders will not be antipodeans.

They are genuine players with Brit Adam Yates the best hope of yellow, while twin brother Simon (who claimed last year’s Vuelta in Spain) will ride shotgun. That win less than 12 months ago was the first of the Grand Tours for MTS and they will be hoping for another.

For the first time in recent memory there are less than 10 Aussies in the field spread across the teams, but one evergreen will have a strong case to be at the Champs Elysee presentation later this month.

After twice being derailed in stage 9 the last couple of years Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) has what could be his last big time shot at claiming the title – he’s been a part of some wonderful teams in the past, but he may never get a better chance than this year’s Tour to claim the sports most prized jersey.

Aussies have already run so close for an early stage win with sprinters Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) going within inches of claiming line honors.

Other internationals to watch out for include defending champion Geraint Thomas in the re-striped INEOS team (formerly SKY) and Jakob Fuglsang leads a strong Astana team,

Local hopes will rest with the likes of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, don’t discount Alejandro Valverde with the Spaniard bringing in good form and Vincenzo Nibali will be there at the pointy end of this brutal race.

Months and years of preparation is coming to fruition for the 106th edition of the famous ‘big lap’ of Gaul, and for more than the just the riders – ALL the team staff endure three weeks like no other.

People close to my heart are those media managers, driven to despair by phones (yes, many of them they normally carry 2 or 3 during event time) that never stop ringing with typical rider requests and questions about team selection to unabashed kite flying and queries about parking (!)

Like all sport cycling is often a reactive beast, with riders, DS’s and officials required to outline why and when things happened or are about to happen – it is a minute-by-minute proposition depending on which new controversy or achievement is highlighted that day. Global media chasing the good, the bad and the ugly every second of every day, and media managers having to deal with it all in various languages and with various agendas’

The Tour planning is immense. From dietary requirements to washing machines hidden under team buses, accommodation and uniforms, to servicing sponsors via helicopter or road passage.

And France, along with the starting stages in Belgium, and Italy are again basking in the spotlight as the circus rolls through the regions, and Aussies endure late nights and early mornings.

The well-practiced ‘tour tragics’ will already be aware of their fellow nocturnal dwellers who just nod sagely when they meet at the office photocopier or over yet another coffee.

That is normally my domain – a foggy head and a slightly lower work rate – but this year I am lucky enough to be on the ground in France, and the only late nights will be of my own doing! 

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Author: Ian Cohen

IAN COHEN has been reporting and commentating on sport across television and radio for more than two decades. He has covered four Olympics and three Commonwealth Games, Tour De France, AFL, NRL, Australian Open Tennis and Golf, Formula 1 and more. Ian is now the managing partner of a successful media and communications company and is managing media pro-bono for Daniher’s Drive 2017

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