Another long day today, this time in Cudillero. My day started at 6am in Mieres. Three hours and two trains later, I was in Cudillero. When I got to the dock, I saw that with all the police and all the fences, it wasn't gonna be easy to get to the riders.
So, I did a little talk here and there, pulled some strings and there you go: VIP Pass. This little thing gave me access to the parking where the buses were and to the meeting point. For all of you wondering what the heck the meeting point is, I'll tell you. It's where all the big bosses, the VIPs and the riders enjoy some drinks, eat, read newspapers and speak with the press. All free.
Anyway, I decided to go to the parking to see if I could get to the riders. The first one to come down was Chechu, and with everyone waiting for Contador, he got away and spoke with some journalists.
All the questions were about the future. He said he's a mess right know, but everyone kind of says that another year is a done deal. I said "Hi" and handed him my photo of 1995. At first, he signed it without looking but then he realized how young he was and I could see he was very surprised.
He immediately called his wife, and everyone looked at the photo. The suprise was bigger when they realised that it was me in the photo too. They started asking questions of when and where it was. I talked with him a little bit and then some friends came, so I said "bye".
Then I spotted Tom Boonen. It's always a pleasure to speak to him so I took a pic with him. He smiled all the time. He's a nice man and a great rider, despite his wild nights.
Then I went to the Tinkoff team bus, to practise my Russian. They were so surprised that I could speak Russian. My next goal was to try to speak with Johan, and after waiting about 15 minutes, the press left him alone and I could have a little chat with him. He's so nice. He saw my photo with Chechu and started to ask questions and he showed it to the mechanics and all the staff.
Pedro Delgado was there too, talking with Chechu's wife. They seem to be close friends, Chechu and Perico. Perico is a simple man, funny and friendly. They were talking about Lance and Contador. Contador, as always, was surrounded with people so I decided to see other riders. Zabel was very popular too. A big rider in his last year.
The last of all the riders to appear was Levi, and I asked him for a photo but he was so late, he had to sign quickly. OK, I understand. When all the riders were on the start point, it was the turn for the Bettini show. That man is awesome. He was in the middle of the crowd, as if he was one of the fans, telling jokes and shouting to other riders. Everyone was looking at him, riders and crowd. The Italians where laughing hard, and Juanma Garate almost fell to the ground laughing. What a guy Bettini is. Kloden and Zabel where together, Contador was speaking with Arroyo and Chechu with Benjamin. The race started.
When I was going back to the train station, I spotted Ekimov. I said "Hi" in Russian and he smiled, then I took a pic with him. You could tell that Ekimov is Russian just by his face. It's the Russian prototype. Well, another exhausting but great day. With or without Chechu next year, what is sure is that it was Chechu last stage in Asturias.
After a long night of rest, I am ready to tell what happened yesterday. The day started more than early, and at 6:30 I was at the skirts of the colossus. A short ride to Viapará and we were ready to walk. The sun started to rise, and I knew that for the first time, the weather in the stage was going to be at least good.
Even at that early hours, Angliru was crowded. And I mean very crowded. People walking, camping, riding all kind of bikes. Me and a good friend (Valverde super fan) started the long walk to the summit.
As if we were pros, we wanted to check every turn, to spot the best place to watch the race. We both like cycling, and want to do the climb on the bike in a couple of weeks. That's why we stopped every time a rider pass to shout some words.
When we arrived at Cueña las cabres, it was almost science fiction. You looked up and there was the road. That on a bike? No way.
We started to walk up and when we get to the end, we looked down. All the cyclists were having real trouble with it. Some where going so slow that they fell to the ground. Some had to leave the bike and walk. Some made it to the end. All of them had the courage to do it.
We decided that even in a sunny day, fog could ruin our view in the summit, and Cueña las Cabres will be full of people so we decided to go down and watch the riders from Cueña les Cabanes, a 21.5% series of turns that start the hard part of Angliru, just after Viapara. The road was full of paintings, most of them to Iñigo Cuesta, a great rider that completes his 20 Vuelta a España. There was also Chechu paintings, Conta, Sastre and of course, Igor Anton.
We followed the race through the radio and a mini TV that a guy had. There we watched Igor falling in El Cordal, a road I knew was dangerous. But Chechu was going down without fear.
On the TV, we also watched Kloden starting Angliru at front and then Chechu came to the front.
People started to smile and to shout to everyone else "Chechu is at front, he´s going like a beast!" "Egoi is out, he's in trouble" "Chechu is doing damage".
The radio also said that Chechu was out of control. Pedaling like a monster, The front pack was absolute chaos. The great Bettini was still there. I was starting to feel nervous.
Then we saw this fan of Levi, who I watched on TV every stage, with his NFL helmet with deer horns on it. Very, very funny, a great man that follows Levi through Spain.
Then the motos came, and then, out of nothing we saw them. First Levi, looking down to see who was with him. Conta on his wheel. Valverde, cleaning his soul from the day before. Joaquim, helping his leader. They were fast. Very fast.
Then it was Carlitos Sastre, pedalling hard, knowing that the front group was going away. Mosquera, Zaugg all of them one by one. Then a big ovation to Rebellin, Bettini and Chavanel, true class, true professionals. Then an Astana climbed alone. And the crowd went wild. A massive roar followed Chechu through the hard portion of the Cuena las Cabanes. His face was a face of satisfaction, and pride. It was awesome.
The second biggest ovation was for Iñigo Cuesta. And to Egoi also.
Some riders absolutely blew on the climb, some of them could even look up. People helped the ones that were having a tough time, like all the sprinters. Boonen attacked on the sprinter group. No one wanted to go slow in front of 100.000 people. Then Quinziatto smiled, looked up and started to laugh. He laughed heavily, and the crowd started to laugh too. It was a great moment.
Also Chente Garcia smiled. He had a lot of fans there. And then it was over. I came home so tired that when I was watching the recorded stage on TV, I fell asleep. On Monday, I will try to be at Cudillero where the stage begins.
On a side note, there was bad critics about the people there on Angliru. I saw on TV, some idiots pulling the riders, but I have to say that where I was, the fans where absolutely clean and respectful.
1) An evening with the team
After the exhausting stage taking the peloton from Jáen to Córdoba, the riders enjoyed a shower and a one-hour massage session, and then one by one, made an appearance in the bar adjoining the hotel lobby.
Two other teams were sharing the same hotel as Astana, Silence Lotto and Caisse d’Epargne. So besides several young unfamiliar riders, there was Levi Leipheimer, Benjamin Noval, Chechu and Alejandro Valverde, dressed in tracksuits, making private phone calls from their mobile phones or having a (soft) drink with friends. An absolutely typical scene of everyday life on one of the major tours.
High speed internet was not available in the rooms, only around the hotel reception. I spent time there working on my laptop, keeping an eye open for the riders going back and forth. Tomas Vaitkus sat spontaneously next to me. After his bad day, he was a bit depressed, I think. I showed him all the photos I have taken of him since the beginning of the Vuelta.
I told him he looked very handsome in his Lituanian champion jersey and he seemed to cheer up a bit. He commented that on some photos, he looked rather unshaven but I said that one could hardly notice it.
Then we went to pick up our friend Dimitri (Popovych’s soigneur) from his room which he is sharing with Nick, another very nice ex-Discovery Channel guy.
Dimitri had been showering after his three-hour session massaging three Silence Lotto riders, and was a little late to our appointment for dinner set at 9pm.
We could not take him to the cosy Italian alfresco restaurant we had discovered the night before, located one kilometre away. Staff are not allowed to eat out.
Dimitri was given permission to eat at our table, however, in the same restaurant and the same special menu as the team, prepared by their personal cook. Finally, we had different dishes but enjoyed Dimitri’s company.
Dimitri, who is a quiet, polite and sentimental type of man, is popular among the Astana team. He spent three years with Discovery Channel and left a very good impression. So when Silence Lotto and Astana share the same hotel, he finds all his friends again.
Chris and Phillipe
While the riders were having dinner, three youngsters appeared at the door of the restaurant with a huge Spanish flag. I first thought they were waiting for Alejandro Valverde, the national champion, to sign the flag, but the champion they were anxiously expecting to finish eating was Alberto Contador, the idol of the young Spanish.
Alberto autographed the flag very nicely and was stopped once more to pose for some photos on the way to his room, when he returned from taking a 15-minute break and fresh air in the hotel garden with Sergio.
When asked the same day in a Spanish TV interview if he wasn’t a bit fed up with the hero worship, Alberto replied that he would rather be surrounded by big crowds of fans than to have nobody at all to encourage him.
But the highlight of the day was when everybody gravitated to the hotel lobby after dinner.
Already the riders were relaxing in their rooms. The various team management and staff all met in the hotel foyer, each with his laptop. As there were very few seats, we all worked lined up along the reception counter, drafting daily reports, sending e-mails, or sorting out photos and exchanging impressions. This unusual and almost funny scene lasted till past 11pm.
2) Breakfast with the team
Breakfast is served from 7.30am in Spanish hotels. As Roger and I are early birds, we are generally showered, dressed and hungry by that time. The only person we met that morning in the dining-room was Richie, sitting like a king at the head of the otherwise empty Astana long table, set for 20.
The staff occupies one big table while the riders and management sit at two different tables.
The riders get a totally different diet to the rest of the team and one of the team doctors (Pedro or Dag) is never far away in order to watch if the riders don’t cheat. Chechu, in particular, is known to have a sweet tooth. Nutella paste, the riders’ favourite, is totally forbidden.
While Roger and I were sipping our coffee, the staff members of the three teams arrived one by one, and all the Astana members greeted us when passing near our table located close to the breakfast buffet.
Most Spanish people enjoy jamon Serrano on toast topped with tomato sauce, and that’s exactly what Dr. Dag chose. It’s supposed to be delicious and it really looked appetising but we were full up by then.
The cyclists normally sleep late to recover from their tremendous daily efforts and recover the energy spent the day before.
After we had our bags packed, we went down for the last time to the restaurant to say farewell to our friends. It was 9am and the only rider sitting at the table was Tomas Vaikus. He is the early bird of the team. We kissed goodbye, I wished him good luck, and promised I would send him the photos of those last four days we spent so close to our favourite team.
We did not see Chechu, who likes to take his time in the morning, specially since the day’s stage was due to start rather late.
I got a big good-bye smile from Alain Gallopin and Geert Duffeleer, nicknamed “Duffy”, who is not only the Operations Director (and number 2 executive in the media book) but also the Astana team cook!
Roger and I are now in Mijas, along the Andalusian coast, on private business.
Following a team during a big race like the Tour or the Vuelta is exhausting. We are not as energetic anymore as we were ten years ago, and this is why we admire so much the enormous work and efforts by the tireless and faithful Astana management and staff, who accepted gracefully our presence during these wonderful four days:
Alain, Eki, Duffy, Philippe, Pedro, Dag, Elvio, James, Valentin, Elvio, Joaquin, Richie, Yuriy, Javier, Faustino and Chris.
And of course all the magnificent Astana riders and most of all our Chechu querido and his adorable wife Laura.
As soon as the 3rd stage bringing the peloton from Jáen to Córdoba ended, Roger and I went down to the hotel lobby with our camera. We had hardly waited ten minutes when the whole group of Astana riders arrived guided by Valentín on his mountain bike.
Valentín is the only one who knew the way from the arrival point to the hotel which is located in the close outskirts of Córdoba. The Astana riders were like college boys in their uniform following their teacher. It was an original sight. All of them were there except Tomas who had suffered from the terrible heat of 40°C on the road.
They were all exhausted, and Benjamin and Chechu started to take off their jersey on the steps of the main entrance. Alberto seemed the least disturbed and was still looking elegant and spotless.
We managed to take a few photos of the Astana boys arriving and Chechu, although sweating and obviously exhausted, smiled and said his usual "Hello Cris" before rushing to his room for a shower and a massage.
Almost at the same time the Caisse d'Epargne team also arrived on their bikes, with Alejandro Valverde, still wearing the jersey de oro, and his team. The bar waiter, Firmin, who is a fan of cycling and had had his picture taken with Miguel Induran in this hotel 17 years ago, asked me if I could do the same with Valverde, who agreed very gracefully. I have come to appreciate this rider who is another gentleman of the cycling world.
We were walking down the alley to the parking lot to welcome the Silence Lotto team, when Tomas Vaitkus arrived all sweating and obviously dead tired. He entrusted his bike to Roger, to be able to rush to his room for a shower, a massage and a rest.
Then Silence Lotto riders arrived at the same time since there are three teams staying at our hotel tonight and we are supposed to have dinner with Dimitri after his massage of Yaroslav Popovych and two other of his team mates. Anyway, in Spain restaurants never start serving dinner before 9pm. The place we are taking him is owned by another cycling fan and we get a special service. That's where we had a sangria and tapas last night.
Finally Laura arrived with Lina, Arturo's wife, and we all went to have a drink at the hotel bar while she waited for Chechu to finish his massage session.
All the Astana staff was gathered in the bar next to us and when Chechu appeared we left the couple alone for a bit of privacy.
Christine Kahane writes, Hello from Cordoba. We skipped the Jaén stage to be able to do some sightseeing in this old city full of interesting history. All along the empty Sunday road to Cordoba, the landscape is dotted with olive tree plantations, sunflower fields, and Moorish citadels with their forts and mosques perched on top of hills.
First of all, I need to correct the information about Astana's room-sharing arrangements. I had it all wrong but it was not my fault, I was misinformed. It's Andreas and not Alberto who has his own room. Alberto, who does not like to be alone, is rooming with Chechu. Benjamin is sharing with Tomas, Serbio is with Dmitriy, and Levi is with Assan, which means that in the end Andreas, Alberto and Chechu won't have the opportunity to get free Russian lessons!
It was only 24°C when the peloton left Granada this morning. A perfect temperature for the riders heading to Jaén. When we arrived at the Village we noticed that the Astana bus had not moved at all. Valentin had left it the whole night in the parking lot and walked to the team hotel, one kilometre away. Granada, as I already mentioned, is a terrible city for driving with lots of one way streets not mentioned on any maps and which the GPS does not recognise.
The riders arrived all together on their bikes, Alberto being straightaway swamped by the regular mad crowd of fans and press, posing very gracefully and with a lot of patience for photos, answering questions, and giving interviews. We all think he should now have a bodyguard because he has become a big star and the crowd can be unmanageable.
Chechu came straight to us to say hello and pose for more photos for the website before he gave an interview to Spain's national TV corporation TVE.
At that precise moment, my camera died and Roger reminded me I had forgotten to recharge it after the 100 photos or so I had taken the previous days. My fault! Fortunately, Roger had the idea to ask Valentin to recharge the battery in the team bus for 15 minutes before the podium signature. t saved my life. Without my camera, I am nobody!
We then hurried to the podium and bumped into Laura, with Arturo and wife Lina, Chechu's long time friends, who organise a race in Menorca every October (see www.ciclomenorca.com).
Chechu with Arturo Sintes
Chechu joined us at the foot of the podium. We chatted while and the riders gathered at the departure point, just in front of us. Then we heard a whistle announcing the departure. Laura and Chechu exchanged a very tender kiss, and in a second he was gone.
We'll see the Astana boys again tomorrow in Cordoba, since we are staying at the same place as them.
Christine Kahane writes, On Saturday 30th August, we went to the hotel in the morning to see the riders leave at precisely 11 am for their morning ride. After posing for a special photo for Rebecca, Alberto and Chechu led the way in the direction of the Paseo de Salon to check out the afternoon team time trial circuit. All the riders looked well and happy.
But the real action was to take place in the late afternoon with the team time trial, a tricky 7- kilometre city circuit. We arrived at the Vuelta Village, rather smaller than the Tour de France ones, but with a Spanish flavoured atmosphere: tapas and Spanish wine and beer, and the fanfare of the Guardia Civil. There was a huge crowd all around the village and the departure area, and when the Astana riders rode by during a team presentation ride around the circuit, the crowd was overjoyed and shouted for Conta.
Contador is, of course, the star of the team, especially here in Spain, but the whole team is treated as if they were rock stars. It's a crazy atmosphere that we have never seen in France, the Spanish being much more outgoing.
When the Astana riders started warming up all together on their trainers, the crowd was five or six deep all around the bus, all pressing to take photos or get reactions from their favourite riders. We hoped and expected that Astana would set the best time but unfortunately, it was not to be and they came 8th overall in 8'35", 14" behind leaders Liquigas.
Apparently, the team director Alain Gallopin, had told them not to ride flat out because it was a dangerous course and he did not want any falls or accidents right at the start of the race. He had been warned that in the first team to go there had been falls.
When the riders returned to the Astana bus, at the end of the stage, the crowd became totally uncontrolled and it became very unpleasant, with everyone pushing and shoving to get near to the riders.
By this time we had met also Laura, Chechu's charming wife, who was with friends from Minorca that she introduced to us. Laura had a hard time squeezing through the mass of people to get to Chechu who is obviously very much admired by the Spanish public. It seemed that every single person wanted his or her photo with Chechu, and of course, Chechu accepted very gracefully. Chechu went back to the hotel on his bicycle and Laura was running after him. It was funny and charming at the same time.
We did not really manage to say proper goodbyes to Chechu and Laura but they know we'll meet again in Cordoba in two days time.
I'll keep you posted on all that happens because in Cordoba we'll be staying at the same hotel as the Astana team.
Christine Kahane writes, Upon arriving in the hall of the five-star hotel where team Astana is staying in the beautiful town of Granada, the first person we saw was Philippe Maertens, Astana’s Public Relations Manager. Although we were meeting him for the first time, I recognised him at once and called him by his name. We kissed as if we had been long time friends.
Christine with Philippe Maertens
Philippe Maertens and Jacinto Vidarte, Alberto's press manager
Philippe, who is a native of Louvain in Flemish Belgium, just returned from holidays in Italy with his wife and two daughters aged 14 and 17.
Then soigneurs Valentin, Richie and Elvio, who had seen us, arrived to kiss and say hello. It’s nice to be welcomed this way!
In the parking lot, the whole Astana staff was already getting the bikes ready for the morning training ride. There were Chris, Faustino, Javier and a young Kazakh called Youri (nickname for “George” in Russian) who lives in Nice, not far from Vino, and speaks a little French.
Then Dr. Pedro arrived, whom I like very much because he is very gentlemanly, Eki accompanying the two Kazakh riders: Assan Bazayev and Dmitry Muravyev because they only speak Russian, followed shortly after by Levi, Alberto, Chechu, Benjamin, Tomas, and Sergio. Chechu looked very well and happy to finish his career with a grand tour.
Johan decided to accommodate the two Kazakhs in separate rooms. Bazayev shares with Kloden, and Leiphiemer is with Muravyev, to help them progress in Russian. Everybody in the team should speak a little bit of Russian.
On this edition of the Vuelta a España, Alberto Contador has his own room as a leader and because there is an odd number of riders, Chechu is sharing with Benjamin Noval, and Tomas Vaitkus is with Sergio Paulinho. These last two are famous for playing pranks, so when they are together they are not always easy to manage. Alberto, when he is relaxed, also has the reputation of enjoying a bit of fun.
Sara, Benjamin’s wife, is due to give birth to little Benjamin Junior in two weeks. It will happen during the Vuelta. September is not a good time for a professional rider to have a baby. This matter needs better planning. This is what Yaroslav Popovych told us at lunch time.
As a matter of fact, after the Astana riders left for their training ride, we went to visit Dimitri, Yaroslav Popovych’s Russian soigneur, at the Silence Lotto hotel. While we were sitting at the bar chatting with Dima, as everybody calls him, we missed Yaroslav who had returned with his teammates from their morning training ride and had gone straight to his room to change for lunch. So Dima called him and Yaroslav came to sit with us for a good half hour. He was in a very high spirits and, although the designated leader of his team on the Vuelta, did not seem at all stressed.
He had just returned from a visit to his parents in Ukraine with his wife Cindy and 18 month-old adorable little devil of a son, who has the same easy going and joyful temper as his father.
In the afternoon, Roger and I visited the beautiful citadel of the Alhambra. It was between 38 and 40°C and we had a hard time driving through the city, getting lost several times, and finding a parking space. The signposting is very bad and even the GPS gets lost.
After a short rest, we went back to the Astana hotel to welcome the riders returning from the team presentation ceremony.
At 8pm, it was still 35°C. While waiting we talked quite a while with the Belgian team doctor Dag, who we had seen several times but never really got acquainted with. He showed us pictures of his four children and talked about his house with a lot of land near Courtrai.
When the riders arrived, night had already fallen, and we could hardly distinguish them in their dark outfit. Chechu had told me earlier that Laura would come for the weekend. But we did not see her. During a race, the wives do not stay in the same hotel as their husbands.
Everybody seems to think that Astana has far the best team and that they could easily place three riders in the top ten in the final GC.