Thursday, October 23, 2014

Cobbles return plus a trip up L'Alpe d’Huez on penultimate stage

The 2015 Tour de France route was unveiled this week leaving me feeling like a kid who gets to see his Christmas present in March before it’s wrapped up and put away again for nine months. Still, I couldn’t help but take a good hard look before sadly watching it get put away despite my pleading that they start racing it right away.

But some good news: The cobbles return and they’ll climb Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate stage of the Tour. This year the race starts outside France once more; this time in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, with short 15km time-trial…the only individual time trial of the entire race – barely long enough to avoid being classified as a prologue -- making this very much a tour for the climbers.

No coincidence then that the year after a couple of French climbers crack the podium that they should limit time-trialing to the bare minimum and go full bore in the mountains? And Vincenzo Nibali should be delighted. Chris Froome isn’t so happy saying he might skip it, which is strange because despite the time-trial being to his advantage, he’s also a decent climber when he puts his mind to it.

Of course, before they even get to the mountains they’ll have Belgium and northern-France to deal with. Returning this year is time-bonuses: ten, six and four seconds to the first three over the line meaning that a sprinter who puts in a good shift in the time-trial can still, in true Cipollini like style in the 90’s, conceivably snatch the yellow jersey for a few days before the mountains.

That said, the sprinters won’t have it that easy and may only have a single day to get close to yellow, but stage two has the chance for echelons, stage three finishes on the infamous Mur de Huy in the Belgian Ardennes, and on stage four the pave returns once more. This opening week is tailor made for someone like Fabian Cancellara, or even Peter Sagan, to take and hold the yellow jersey for the entire week.

Last year’s stage five across the cobbles was a huge hit with the fans, if not all the riders, and so the race organisors have come to accept that if they do the mountains in the south of France every year, why not do the cobbles in the north. Both are roads in France; both should be considered a challenge to overcome. Once again, Nibali will be delighted, for it was on those cobbles in 2014 that he set up his overall victory.

Beyond that on the northern-half of this Tour, the sprinters will get a few days in the sunshine, before another uphill finish on the Mur de Bretagne on stage eight. Cadel Evans won here in 2011 just ahead of Alberto Contador, on his way to winning his one and only Tour de France. Can we expect to see the 2015 winner taking a stage victory once again here?

The northern half finishes with a 28km team-time-trial. A chance for the strong teams to give their leaders one last time boost ahead of the mountains which will begin following a rest day down in the southern half of the country, and race.

That trip into the Pyrenees will begin on Bastille Day; a day for the French to show their hand…a day for Pinot, Bardet or Peraud to stake their claim? Three days they’ll toil in the Pyrenees before transitioning their way across to the Alps, and if the Tour isn't already won by here, and I suspect it won’t be, then this will be where everyone lays their cards on the table.

Stage 17 to Pra Loup will bring back memories, for the older generation, of the slowing Eddy Merckx’s reign coming to an end at the hands of Bernard Thevenet in 1975. What will it do to the current crop dreaming of GC glory? Will another Frenchman use it as a staging post to glory? Or will Nibali once more put down the hammer?

Stage 19 and 20, the final two days in the Alps will be the most dramatic and are the two shortest road-race stages. 138km one day, but crossing three mountains, and 110km the next finishing a-top L’Alpe d’Huez will make for fascinating viewing. We’ll be able to watch from the very start with no transitional section before the real racing begins. On these two stages it should be all out from the proverbial gun as everyone sniffs a chance to win and the contenders sense their last chance to make their move.

By the time they wind their way to the top of the Alpe and through the throngs of fans awaiting them…expected to be huge given the lack of a stage length with which to spread them over, we’ll know who has won this race. We can only hope the GC battle is still in the balance coming into stage 20, but even if it isn’t, the stage itself should be fantastic to watch.

Then it’s the usual jaunt into Paris, a procession where riders chit-chat up and down the peloton and the winner is captured clinking glasses of champagne with his team-mates before that famous high-speed crit up and down the Champs Elysees.

And so, 3,350km after they took turns rolling down the starting ramp in Utrecht, the tour will be won and lost for another year and all that will remain is for the winner to make his victory speech and spend the following weeks fighting off all sorts of doping allegations.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cycling's nearly man retires at the sage of 29

It was Andy's brother Frank Schleck, winding his way up that hairpin stacked colossus of Alpe d'Huez at the 2006 Tour de France when I first heard about Andy. 'If you think this guy is good, you should see his brother', said the commentator, or something to that affect. Initially dismissed as something you often hear, it was proven true when he made his Grand Tour debut at the next years Giro and finished second. A rare talent had been unearthed and big things were projected, and yet here we are, just seven years on, and the now 29 year old, injured and washed up younger Schleck, has retired.

Andy Schleck made the announcement yesterday saying that cartilage damage in his right knee, suffered from a crash in England during a stage of this years Tour de France, was irreparable.

"The ligaments were fine, they healed," said Schleck, "but I have almost no cartilage left under my kneecap." His contract with Trek Factory Racing was expiring at the end of the year, unlikely to be renewed, and with this latest injury now hanging over him, his chances of finding a new team growing slimmer by the day.

Back in 2008 though, when he made his Tour de France debut and finished 12th followed by a second place to Alberto Contador the following year, still aged just 23, he was one of the hottest properties in the sport. Like Jan Ullrich before him who burst into the sport with such promise, he soon became the nearly man.

At the 2009 Tour he was beaten into second place by Alberto Contador and again in 2010, or so it seemed. In an incredible three week duel he lost the Tour by a mere 39 seconds, the exact number of seconds he lost to Contador on stage 15 when his chain dropped on the way up the Port de Bales and the Spaniard attacked, but this time, in the long run, fate was with him. Contador, tested positive at the Tours second rest day in what became the beefgate scandal and following a lengthy trial was stripped of his title with Schleck inheriting the win.

“It’s nice to accept this jersey, but for me it doesn't change anything – it’s not like a win," he said at the time. "It’s not the same sensation as climbing on the podium.”

And yet many still felt his chance to do so would come. In 2011 with Contador off form and still waiting to hear the vircit of his trial, Schleck seemed nailed on to win, but once again he would play second fiddle. Leading into the final time-trial of the Tour by 53 seconds over his brother Frank and 57 seconds to Cadel Evans he coughed up 2 minutes 31 seconds to the Australian who pulled on Yellow and wore it into Paris the following day. It was like a slightly less dramatic (but only slightly) version of LeMond and Fignon all over again. Ironic too in that Cyrille Guimard, the man who first signed Schleck as a junior, had compared him to Fignon.

But that 2011 Tour also brought with it the finest ride of Schleck's career and the one for which he will be most remembered. Often criticised for not being aggressive enough; for not attacking at the risk of dropping his brother when he so badly wanted them both on the top two steps of that podium, he finally fired back on stage 18 going on one of the finest solo exploits in recent tour memory to win at the top of the famous Col du Galibier. He attacked early on the Col d'Izoard and rode alone for 60 kilometres leading on the Galibier with, at one stage, a four minute lead. Evans went on pursuit to save his Tour and while the Yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, who had been battling viciously though the mountains to retain his lead, kept it by a handful of seconds, the writing was on the wall. Schleck would eventually pull on yellow only to lose it a few days later.

Following that epic stage, and even in spite of eventually losing the Tour to Evans, it was believed that Schleck had truly discovered his full potential and in knowing it's high limits from the start in 2012 he would ensure that the time-trial would not become a factor. Instead however, that memorable win would prove to be his last at the Tour, and he was never the same rider again. He started to get injured more and soon found himself off the pace and rapidly losing confidence, dropping early on the kind of climbs he used to dominate.

The moment was captured at its worst with Schleck crashing out of this years Tour early. Another crash, another injury, another Tour lost. Would he ever recover to come back to the rider he was and we knew he could be? At 29 you felt time was still on his side, though in his old rival Contador and new contenders in Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome, he appeared to have been left behind. One could hope he'd find his way back, but yesterday Schleck confirmed that time was not on his side, that he was done.

A three time winner of the young rider white jersey competition at the Tour de France, it's sad to see him now retiring young, but perhaps in doing so we'll always remember him as being young, wearing that white jersey, soaring high on mountains like the Tourmalet in 2010 and Galibier in 2011; a young man of potential.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kwiatkowski, cycling's brightest young star, wins World Championship

These kind of courses with so much on the line seem to cater towards the same tactic: Hold off until that short, sharp, final climb near the finish and do the damage there. The early break attempts go clear but get washed up just in time for the decisive move to be made. It reminded me so much of the race in Montreal just a few weeks ago, a race that Simon Gerrans won, and who this time had to settle for second behind Michal Kwiatkowski who made the kind of move Peter Sagan made in Montreal the year before.

What a talent Kwiatkowski is. It's amazing he isn't marked in the same kind of way Sagan is. Nobody helping him when he attacks, everyone covering him and forcing him to chase everything down. Younger than Sagan by several months, the Polish phenom has proven himself capable in single day races as well as Grand Tours and must surely be seen as the finest young talent in the sport right now.

The first 245 kilometres of this 254.8 kilometre race was all about wearing down legs and building fatigue. It didn't make for a great spectacle on television but it ensured the final part of the race was the most dramatic. And with so many feeling they could win it, they hit the final climb with everything up for grabs.

Sprinters seen the climb as short enough that if they battled over they could yet win the dash for the line; classics men in the mould of Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert or Greg Van Averamet seen it as ideal to put in an almighty dig to distance the rest by enough to stay clear on the descent; and climbers seen it as the kind of climb that they could match those classic men and then distance them before the top. It was a World Championships made for everyone but the upshot was it was a World Championships in which we had to wait six hours for it all to kick off.

My tip to win had been Gerrans, and he came so close. His form in Canada at Quebec City and Montreal, were he won both, suggested he would be in contention and he didn't disappoint. He missed Kwiatkowski getting away and then in the run down to the finish, he won the small group sprint. So near, yet so far for a rider in the form of his life. No wonder he said he felt like crying when he crossed the line.

Third was Alejandro Valverde, a man with superb consistency in the World Championships, but who has yet to win it. Six times he has finished on the podium and you can't help but think of his palmarès had things gone just that little bit differently and he won them! For the Canadian contingent, all three (Ryan Anderson, Christian Meier and Michael Woods) all failed to finish, while of the nine British riders only two finished, with Ben Swift in 12th and Peter Kennaugh in 82nd.

Kwiatkowski may have gotten away at the foot of the climb in part because others, like Gerrans, were waiting for the likes of pre-race favorites, Sagan or Cancellara, to make their moves further up the climb. Nobody expected someone to go so soon or for their effort to be sustained, but given how he stayed clear over the top, down the other side and into the finish to win his first (and I'll say not his last!) World Championship, you can bet Kwiatkowski will be marked tighter in the future...especially now that he'll stand out in rainbow stripes.

That said, he'll line up next week at Il Lombardia for his first race in the rainbow jersey and while many have indeed seen it as a jersey that stifles them given how recognisable you are in the bunch and everyone understanding your capiabilities, you get the sense Kwiatkowski will thrive in it.

1. Kwiatkowski (Pol) in
2. Gerrans (Aus) +1"
3. Valverde (Esp) s.t.
4. Breschel (Den) s.t.
5. Van Avermaet (Bel) s.t.
6. Gallopin (Fra) s.t.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wiggins adds another string to his palmarès bow with a win in the time-trial world championships

Sir Bradley Wiggins announced this week that next year he is to tackle the World Hour record and on the form we seen him in yesterday when he romped away with the World time-trial Championship ahead of Tony Martin, of all people, it won't be a matter of if he beats Jens Voigt's new marker (or whoever holds it come that time), but by how much?

Wiggins has now won numerous track-titles (including Olympic Gold's), an Olympic Gold in the time-trial, this World time-trial championship and the Tour de France, as well as several other week long stage races. And on top of a run at the World Hour record, he has said he is targeting the Paris-Roubaix next year, aided by the fact he is beefing himself up over the winter in a bid to return to the track full-time ahead of the Rio Olympics, and should he indeed win himself a Monument classic along with that World Hour record then he can ride off into the sunset of retirement as one of the most complete riders of his generation, if not all-time.

In winning these championships, Wiggins becomes the second man to become World time-trial champion while reigning Olympic time-trial champion. Fabian Cancellara won the championships in 2009 and 2010 having won the 2008 Olympic title (he also won the championships in 2006 and 2007). Also, Miguel Indurain won the 1995 time-trial championships before going on to win the Olympic title in 1996.

Decked out in British clothing with a British flag bike, Wiggins ride yesterday brought back memories of London 2012 when Wiggins rode through his home city to win that Olympic title in one of the most memorable moments of those games.

Yesterday's time-trial was vintage Wiggins. A superb rider against the clock you only have to look at him to know he is on his game and going fast. Aside from the legs and the road below him, he's virtually motionless; you could place a full wine glass on his back and you wouldn't spill a drop.

And the time-checks showed he was on a good ride also. Leading at each, he only continued to build on his margin over Tony Martin, the pre-race favourite looking to win a record fourth time-trial championships in a row. By the line Wiggins had taken 26 seconds out of Martin and 40 out of Tom Dumoulin who took the bronze.

Wiggins was the only man to go over 50km/h for the ride, a stunning average on such a course.

World time-trial championship result:
1. Wiggins (Gbr) in 56:25.52
2. Martin (Ger) + 0:26.23
3. Dumoulin (Ned) +0:40.64
4. Kiryienka (Bel) +0:47.92
5. Dennis (Aus) +0:57.74
6. Malori (Ita) +1:11.62

Friday, September 19, 2014

Voigt smashes official World Hour; sets new benchmark

It's been so long since this last happened that a whole generation of cycling fans have come into the sport and grew to love it but without ever having seen one of cycling's greatest records get broken and so how good it was to see the likable and ever hard suffering Jens Voigt bring down the curtain on a long and illustrious career by setting a new benchmark for the World Hour for a new era of cycling.

Voigt was expected to break the record, though it wasn't certain, not when the previous record was set by Oleg Sosenka, a rider who had previously been under suspicion of EPO use and who would later go on to fail a drugs test, and not when the current effort was being attempted by a rider who had just turned 43 years of age the day before. But Jens smashed it with a distance of 51.115 kilometres, further than many, including himself, had expected.

All throughout his ride he was on pace for the record yet when some wondered whether he was on the verge of tiring and whether it might turn into a battle to achieve the great feat, he upped his speed and only moved clear. Gritting his teeth, no doubt shouting 'shut up legs', Voigt reminded himself that this was one last effort before a life in retirement; one last turn of suffering, and with it his average speed rose up over 50.5km/h and on over 51km/h.

By comparison to Sosenka, Boardman and Merckx, Voigt's first kilometre was standard enough. 1:15, equal to Sosenka, two seconds quicker than Boardman, but a staggering five seconds slower than Merckx. It's well known that Merckx flew out of the gate setting a first kilometre equal to that of someone going for a 4km pursuit rather than World Hour record and that it caught up with him later in the hour.

By five kilomeres Voigt was again equal to Sosenka with a time of 6:00, four seconds up on Boardman; five seconds down on Merckx. By ten kilometres Voigt was two seconds ahead of Boardman, a second behind Sosenka, and eight seconds behind the Cannibal.

It was around here that Merckx began to tire and after the 20km mark he had slipped back to a time equal to that of Boardman but now trailing both Sosenka and Voigt by three seconds.

Voigt then began to open the burners and at the next checkpoint of 30km he was a massive 34 seconds ahead of Sosenka who himself had gone through 12 seconds up on Boardman and 14 seconds up on Merckx.

By the 40km mark Voigt was all but assured of the record baring a complete capitulation. He now led Sosenka by almost a full minute with Boardman's record only a second up on Merckx's but 1 minute 17 seconds down on Voigt's new standard.

When the gun went off to signal the record had broken, Voigt was still able to ride another 1.415 kilometres, pushing the record further and further out of reach with each final turns of his pedals.

His time still fell well short of records set in the 1990s by the likes of Graeme Obree, Chris Boardman, Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger, on super bikes later deemed illegal by the UCI for their official record. That was the last time that this record truly captured the public's imagination; a long time ago when you think that children unborn then are now entering university.

When the UCI put those 1990 times into a category of 'best human effort' and reverted the official UCI record back to Eddy Merckx from 1972 when he went 49.431km, requiring those attempting the record to do it on a Merckx style bike. Boardman returned in 2000 to take the record by a mere ten metres before Sosenka broke it with a distance of 49.7km in 2005. But the record no longer seemed to hold the public's attention and nor the interest of the riders until earlier this year when the UCI relaxed the rules to allow any bike deemed legal for current track competition, thus opening the door for new attempts. And Voigt was the first to step through.

With modernised regulations for the bikes that can be used and a more scrutinised sport it really feels like this record has been reset with a new benchmark. Sure it would be nice to see the modern cyclist ride the same bike as Merckx but generations and technologies change with the eras and like any sport where we could love to know for sure how the best of today stacked up against the greats of yesteryear, it isn't realistic. Even when Boardman and Sosenka tackled the record on a Merckx like bike they did so with aero-helmets, clipless pedals and bladed spokes, backed with modern training techniques and nutrition.

The sudden interest in Voigt's attempt proved just how special this record truly is for cycling and while Voigt's new benchmark was beyond what many expected and will certainly be tough to beat, it isn't impossible and Voigt's lasting legacy to the record may be that he stokes the competitive juices of others like Wiggins, Tony Martin or Cancellara, to come out and try break it for themselves.

Voigt's time checks against previous records:
1km      01:09.97    01:17.89    01:15.01    01:15.00
5km      05:55.60    06:04.01    06:00.42    06:00.94
10km     11:53.20    12:03.88    12:00.59    12:01.34
20km     24:06.80    24:06.07    24.03.05    24:03.57
30km     36:20.20    36:18.40    36:06.73    35:32.76
40km     48:34.43    48:33.40    48:15.32    47:16.67

DIST.    49.431km    49.441km    49.700km    51.115km

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jens Voigt attempts to rekindle one of cyclings greatest records: The World Hour

Tonight the seemingly ever popular, never aging, Jens Voight will bring down the curtain on his long career in cycling by taking a shot at one of the most prestigious standards in all of the sport: The World Hour record.

It's a record steeped in history but one that in recent years has lay dormant, but thanks to the UCI amending their rules on what equipment is applicable to go for the official UCI record, there's a hope that Voigt's big effort tonight will open the floodgates for further attempts.

The official record at the moment is 49.7 kilometres set by Ondrej Sosenka in July 2005, and although several riders bettered this time significantly in the 1990s, their times were later split away from the official UCI record to the category of 'best human effort' when the UCI deemed the bikes used to be illegal and that any future attempt must be made on a bike similar in style to that used by Eddy Merckx when he broke the record in October of 1972 by going 49.431 kilometres.

With the record re-set, Chris Boardman, the man who had held the best record when the UCI decided to revert back to that of Merckx, became the first to beat it in 2000. It was a fine achievement but one that said as much about the talent of Merckx as it does anything else.

28 years had passed since Merckx laid down the marker in an outdoor velodrome in Mexico wearing one of those old style rubber helmets, riding a bike with normal wheels, flat spokes and toe-clips on his pedals and while Boardman used a similar bike to Merckx in specification he had the advantages of an aero helmet, clipless pedals and bladed spokes. All this made a difference and coupled with modern training and nutrition techniques, Merckx's time was beaten by just ten metres.

Sosenka then took Boardmans record but three years later he failed a drug test and suspicion has lingered over his record ever since. And nobody has attempted to break it again; unwilling to go onto an old fashioned style bike that isn't suited to what they have been accustomed to riding for such efforts. Bike companies likewise have seen little benefit to getting behind a record set on a bike that isn't going to promote their technology.

With this in mind and in the hopes that a new marker could be established to carry the sport into a new era, the UCI finally relented and changed the rules earlier this year to allow a modern track and time-trial style bike to be used. And Voigt, cleverly, was the first to jump at it.

On a standard Merckx like bike, it is unlikely that Voigt could break the record, but on the kind of modern day bike he will be riding, he stands a very good chance. It's a shame we'll lose that direct reference to a time done by Merckx, but with the prior mentioned advantage of training, nutrition, and equipment, it was hardly an level playing field between eras anyway.

And given the lack of attempts at this record in recent years a whole generation of cycling fans have come to the sport since this record last made serious headlines and many will have never seen the record broken before. This serves as an opportunity to set a new standard and re-awaken the great record.

Following Voigt's effort tonight I'd expect to hear announcements by the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Sir Bradley wiggins and even Tony Martin of their intentions to now go for it themselves with much encouragement of their respective bike sponsors.

It's a historic evening for cycling and on the line is the opportunity to rekindle one of the sports greatest milestones.

Good luck to you Jens Voigt.


The following is a video of the great Eddy Merckx attempting the record in 1972. The difference in the equipment used and the track he rode on is striking, yet it it is unbelievable that the time he set could only be bettered by a mere ten metres by Chris Boardman 28 years later.

It may look like poetry in motion, but the suffering is unparalleled. Merckx would say afterwards that it was the hardest thing he had ever done on a bike and that he felt paralytic when climbing off and that three days went by before he could walk again.

Merckx went out of the gate like a rocket and barely relented.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Watching the best in Montreal

For the whole five and a half hour drive from just east of Toronto up to Montreal I was followed by a dark rain cloud. I'd get ahead of it while driving but when I stopped to grab a snack, or another cup of tea from Tim Horton's, I'd arrive back out to the car to the sight of pouring rain, and with my bike in the back of the van it wasn't a good sign. I was on my way up there to watch the following days Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal but also to ride the course on the Saturday afternoon and get a feel for what it was truly all about. How hard could it really be for these pros?

And now it looked as though I was going to have to do it in the pouring rain, if indeed I could summons the desire having driven for five hours and with the lure of the pub just around the corner, literally, from the youth hostel I had booked to stay in, and the knowledge that the Liverpool match was on.

By the time I arrived that match was already half an hour old, Liverpool were one down and killing any inspiration to rush into a pub to watch them, and then I found out I had arrived much to early to check into the hostel. With the rain beginning to fall and time to kill, I decided to kit up in the back of the van and head on out to sample this course.

The circuit in Montréal is a 12.1km lap climbing 229 metres. No walk in the park by any standards and given the pros would be doing it 17 times for 205.7km and a total elevation climbed of 3,893 metres, it equated to that of an alpine stage at the Tour de France. Of course, I wouldn't be doing 17 laps of it today and as the rain only fell harder and the wind blew colder as I rode towards the circuit my minds plan of three laps quickly became one quick one and back to the car and hopefully a hot shower at the hostel.

I joined the circuit about halfway around its official lap. I had hoped that perhaps the circuit would have been closed for the weekend but no such luck and so I was faced with far too many traffic lights to get a proper feel for the lap. Still, on my way to the start-finish I hit my first, and officially the second climb of the lap, the Côte de la Polytechnique, a short but sharp 800m rise at 6% that by the 17th time would surely be numbing the legs.

It was this climb that Peter Sagan launched his attack on the final lap last year, countering a move made by Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. I was standing down by the start-finish area then and watching on a big-screen and the crowd had gone wild for Hesjedal's attack only to cheer again when the home town favorite was buried by Sagan. Such is the nature of the cycling fan, their desire to see Hesjedal win was over ridden by the appreciation of Sagan's talent, his daring, and his solo ride to the win.

Sagan wasn't here this year and nor was Hesjedal, but I was back and here I was on that hill that ultimately decided the race last year. Two fellow recreational cyclists were just ahead of me and riding at a similarly slow pace. The voice of Phil Liggett burst into my head: "He's fighting hard to keep the wheel of the two in front, Paul." Indeed I felt like I could have pushed deep and gone past them but I didn't want to reach the top only to sit down, try to bring the heart-rate back to a safe range and have them blast right past me again in conversation with one another, so I stayed put. Besides, at the next traffic light they squeezed through as it was changing to red and I stopped.

The start-finish straight on the Avenue du Parc was closed off to cars but a lot of prep work was going on to get it ready for tomorrow. Still, I tootled down anyway, ignored by those working when I half expected to be told to get off the circuit, under the red kite, down to the hairpin and back up the 560 metre, 4% drag to the line. At which shortly thereafter came the meat and bones of this course: Mount Royal's, Côte Camilien-Houde.

In the grand scheme of cycling this isn't much of a hill: 1.6km at 8%. A drag to be sure, but far from the hardest thing those racing it will have experienced this season. But when you do tackle it 17 times that turns into a 27.2km climb at 8% and that can do strange things to the legs.

For me it was about laying down some kind of marker on Strava to remind me of my mortality against these incredible athletes and so I swung onto the climb, sufficiently warmed up, and decided to go as hard as I could. And, of course, I had gone through the entire checklist of good preparation even for one push up this climb: Sleep deprivation, check; technical issue with gearing, check; Five hour drive pre-ride, check; lashing rain, check. The technical issue with gearing was the worst possible one, the inability to get into the lowest gear. The rear derailleur appeared out of whack and would bump against the spokes when I tried to find relief in that cog; an issue from which I carried nothing to fix it at that moment.

The heart rate soared, the good work of having been off the bike for a couple of weeks before kicked in and soon I was grinding. From behind: "Allez. Keep going," two pros out doing a recon of the course, spinning past me as though on a flat road with the wind at their backs. I was hunched over the handlebars and unable to fulfill the earlier held belief that since they were taking it easy I might be able to suffer along on their wheel. I was able to blurt out my amazement that they'd be tackling this thing 17 times. The one on the right in the Orica GreenEdge kit laughed but it was a laugh that sounded as much like a man coming to the realisation of what I had just reminded him of. Or at least I like to think so.

For the rest of the way up groups of those set to race the next day would spin past me, chatting to one another, putting out a high cadence as my legs struggled to turn. "He's turning squares here Phil, really suffering as the Garmin team ride away from him," mused the imaginary Paul Sherwen.

Then I noticed the Garmin on my handlebars wasn't recording. I typically set the auto-pause to about 10km/h to account for unwanted slowdowns on my rides, like traffic lights, but on this climb I had gone below this threshold; an unwanted slowdown to be sure, but one that was my own legs doing. I hesitated between riding on and stopping to adjust it so I could register a time, and then I stopped to adjust it. But it was too late, the time it hadn't been counting meant I wouldn't go onto the standings for this infamous Montréal hill.

In the time I was stopped my heart-rate came down and I felt composed again and set off after another pair of professionals gently riding their way up. Ten metres later I was quickly losing ground once more. Up over the top and with the rain beating down I had no desire to go around again only to try set another time on this hill. I was best served waiting until next year and accepting my place on the side of the road watching. On the way down the hill the pro in front followed the road to the right while I swung left back in towards the city, the waiting hostel and a warm pub.

By 11pm that evening, showered, changed, fed and sipping on a beer I wondered how many of those supreme athletes that burned past me on the hill were still awake now? Tucked up in their warm cribs they would be, dreaming about 17 turns on that hill the next day.

And so there I was the next day on various points of that very climb, watching them grind their way up. The first couple of times up I could hear relaxed conversation in the peloton, content to let the days forlorn hope of four escapees from the first lap, Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), Louis Vervaeke (Lotto), Jan Polanc (Lampre) and Ryan Roth (Canada), go up the road. I was again stunned at the ability of this peloton to tackle what I struggled on so easily, chatting to one another about anything from the meal the night before to the girl standing just beyond the 500m to the summit sign. Three laps down, fourteen to go.

The next thirteen laps were relatively uneventful. The break pushed out to near twelve minutes at one point and when you watch on television you don't quite fathom how much of a lead twelve minutes actually is, whereas when you're standing still at the side of the road and you watch the front group roll past, twelve full minutes can seem a long time, especially on what is only a twenty minute lap. Stay asleep anymore and the four in the break could lap the field. Now wouldn't that be a pickle! Still there was so long to go and all logic suggested that like almost always they would eventually be caught.

Roth was the first to lose contact with three laps to go, then Jeannesson and finally Vervaeke leaving just Polanc solo with one lap left. By now his lead had shrunk to little more than a minute at the bell and when he hit Camilien-Houde it was he, like me twenty-four hours before, that was turning the squares. Suffering he looked over his shoulder and seen his fate baring down on him. A shrunken peloton, but a large one at that would take on the final half of this climb and the rest of the lap for the win. With Polanc swept away, his Lampre teammate and my pre-race pick to win, Rui Costa attacked. He was chased down but over the top a select group had emerged. That group grew in size down the other side and despite further attempts by others to attack on the Polytechnique, it remained quite large for the charge down towards the finishing straight.

Simon Gerrans, winning at the Quebec City race on Friday, had briefly lost touch on the Polytechnique but two Orica GreenEdge teammates helped bridge him into the lead group and while Costa tried once more to attack, he was brought back as they headed down and under the 1km to go kite, directly across the road from the finishing line.

By now I was tucked up in a Grand Stand 30 metres from the line. A perfect view of them sweeping down the road on one side before emerging up over the rise on the other, through what was in other laps the feed station, and into the sprint for the line.

And all this was free. Yet another magical thing about this sport. Five and a half hours of watching the worlds best within touching distance on the climbs and then on the finishing straight from a grand stand, for zero cost. I can think of few other elite level sports that allow you that kind of access for no charge. Even pre and post race the riders will mingle among the fans; the kind of fan-athlete interaction you find nowhere else and which I hope cycling never loses.

By now it was Gerrans's race to lose; he had three team-mates to lead him out and he was the fastest man left in the group. So no shock to look down into the distance and see him break over the right shoulder of his final leadout man, open a gap of nearly ten bike length and sit up with his arms in the air, right in front of me, with thirty metres still to go, and celebrate the Quebec double; the first man to achieve it. A superb weekend for the Australian.

From Gerrans in first, the World Champion Rui Costa in second, the four men from the days early break, and everyone else who started this savage circuit, I had gained for them a whole new level of admiration. 109 of 152 finished the 17 turns up the 1.6km, 8%, Côte Camilien-Houde, the climb I had found a grind to do just once.

Next year I'll be back again and I'd quite like to make a longer trip of it and take in the Quebec City race on the Friday as well. Whatever I do though, I'll bring the bike along again and hopefully with better weather and a little more fitness I'll get a better and longer ride on the course.

1. Gerrans (OGE) in 5h24'27"
2. Rui Costa (LAM) s.t.
3. Gallopin (LTB) s.t.
4. Navardauskas (GRS) s.t.
5. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
6. Dumoulin (GIA) s.t.