Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's that time of year again

This is where the summer begins as far as I'm concerned with the Tour de France prologue in Liege. This is the 99th Tour and it has the potential to be one of the most exciting for years, particularly for us Brits as Bradley Wiggins has a real chance of making the podium on July 22nd.

It's not just Brad though who will be carrying British hopes, Cav is riding this years tour as current World Champion and hoping not only to add to his individual stage wins but also to try and win the green jersey for the second year running. Both riders have had good years so far and the indvidual time trial gives Brad a great chance to begin the race proper wearing the maillot jeune although I suspect that the Swiss Fabian Cancellera will enjoy a course that looks ideal for the time trial specialists.

I expect the other main competition for the yellow jersey (or GC as it is known in cycling parlance during the course of the Tour) to be Cadel Evans, last years tour winner. Evans has the face of a terrier that's just licked piss off a nettle but he's a brilliant cyclist who is not afraid of going it alone if needs must. This year he has George Hincapie in his team, Hincapie and Le Tour go together as much as Denis Menchov and tarmac, this will be his 17th successive tour which not only makes him the old man of the race but also sets a new record - go George!

Hincapie has one of the great cycling CV's and one of the most interesting. He was a team mate of  Lance Armstrong on each of the Texans seven Tour wins and of Alberto Contador in 2007 and Cadel Evans in 2011 when they won the race. He has been on the winning team in Le Tour an incredible nine times and has won four stages during the previous sixteen times he has riding the three week race. He is of course one of the key witnesses in the drug taking case (or vendetta) against Lance Armstrong having reportedly told a US federal investigation that both he and Armstrong had taken EPO. Hincapie retires after this years race but I can't help thinking that we will be hearing more of George after he has dismounted from his rather expensive mode of transport around France than we will over the next three weeks.

Mark Cavendish‏@MarkCavendish
3 weeks of suffering physically, mentally & emotionally starts today. But the image of Champs Élysées is the most beautiful target in sport.
It will be interesting to watch the Sky team trying to get a train rolling and lead Cavendish out having grown used to the HTC team doing it for so many years and where Mark Renshaw was a key figure in getting Cav into position for that final burst of speed over the final 150 metres this year Renshaw will be a rival. Stages 2, 3, 4,  5 and 6 are all  potential bunch sprint finishes and the chance for Cavendish to put his marker down before the tour begins its first serious climb next Saturday in the Vosges region.

The good news for Cav is that Sky also signed his old HTC team mate and general good guy Bernie Eisel whose sole job it seems is to make sure that Cav doesn't lose too much time in the mountains which could get him thrown off the race.

TdF 2012: at 14:11 I'm one of the first riders who goes down the ramp and 3 weeks of fun, concentration and pain will start. Can't wait!

The scene then is set and if things had worked out differently during my teenage years I could well have ended up living and working in Liege.  I was offered the chance to play semi-professional football in Belgium, the chance to play in the youth team of one of the, then, leading sides in the country. The prospect of playing football and being paid for it was a big carrot to somebody who had just completed their first year of A Levels and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was spending the summer, as I had the previous long hot summer of 1976, working in a meat processing factory and when I say processing I mean every step of the way from killing animals in the abbatoir to wrapping the pork pies for Sainsbury's. The hours were long and hot but the other students working there were a laugh, as were some of the more permanent work force and it was silly money, a minimum of £80 a week for a ten hour day, five days a week with as much overtime as I could handle - or want to handle.

The lure of Belgium came about because the coach of the side I played for locally, youth team on Sunday, reserves on a Saturday, worked for Ford in Belgium. I think they were making Ford Transit's at the time, although Swaythling has always been the spirtual home of  white van man, and there was a connection between the motor plant and a couple of teams who were looking for young players. Belgium football clubs have always recruited local players and whilst they were on the look out for players one of the key proviso's was that you had to be living locally. The question then was how much did I want it? I was curious more than keen but keen I was. I told everybody who I thought needed to hear that I could be moving to Belgium to play football, as could several of my team mates. It wasn't that simple though. Staying on for A Levels meant that I was the only one in our age group who didn't have a job, in fact half the team had apprenticeships (yes it was that long ago!) and all the others had decent jobs. My French was passable and would obviously improve but the thought of working in a factory forty hours a week because I had to rather than because I wanted to was horrifying.

No disprespect to anybody works in a factory, and the total time I worked in a factory as a sixteen and seventeen year old probably added up to no more than six months of my working life, but the reason I enjoyed it was because it was a summer job. It was giving me the opportunity to save for a motor bike whilst the local careers officer looked for a job for me (yes, it did happen back in the 1970's) to start in August or September.

I had to admit to myself that I was scared. Scared of working in  a factory, scared of living in a country where I didn't know anybody, could speak the language to Grade C 'O' Level standard and scared in case I wasn't good enough and had to come home to no higher education and no job - although again when I left school you could choose which job you wanted rather than hope that a job which vaguely appealed would appear on the horizon waving its arms at you.

I decided to say 'Non'. When push came to shove I had made a list of excuses that all proved I hadn't wanted to be a semi-professional footballer with professional pretensions bad enough. How short of wanting it bad enough came home to me in the first thirty seconds of the new football season starting in August. I was playing right side of midfield in a match at Poole Stadium, well known then because the corners were cut off to accommodate the speedway track so that when you took a corner it was like being a subutteo player. I received the ball from the kick off, played a short one two with a team mate and then went flying through the air, crashing down on my right shoulder. I picked myself up and turned to see who had been responsible for the tackle. He was a couple of years younger than his team mates, stocky, determined to make a name for himself, he offered his hand and smiled.

As for me well the local careers officer got me a job interview and one Thursday in August I was sent to a firm of Chartered Accountants in Bournemouth. I was told about the training, the career prospects and the salary (£19 a week compared to the basic £80 in the factory). I was offered the job on my spot. My Mum had given me a lift to the interview and when I told her I had the job she forgot to put the car in reverse to pull out of the car park and drove forwards into the wall! I left the factory on the Friday, bought a 'proper' suit for £21 on the Saturday and started my long career in accountancy on the Monday.

But what of that player who had taken me out after thirty seconds, what happened to him? Well he wanted it so badly that despite several knockbacks as a youth player, and at least one broken leg, he worked his way up from non-league football to captain his country at a World Cup.


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