The Giro, and changing people's lives with bicycles
Pink jumper predictions
Last week Cycling UK's pundits gave their pink jumper predictions on who was going to win the Giro d'Italia. If you've watched any of the Eurosport coverage this week, in addition to the racing and scenic meander through Sardinia to the barren slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, you will also have seen Cycling UK's Big Bike Revival (BBR) advert. Now in its third year, we're hoping that BBR kicks off a summer of cycling, so please give a thought to whether you know anyone with a neglected bike who could be encouraged back into the saddle through one of our events.
I knew last week when I wrote about my passion for the Giro that some would question why Cycling UK were talking about lycra cycling rather than everyday cycling. Being inclusive, though, means involving anyone and everyone with disparate interests in cycling, and many people who cycle for pleasure or as a means of transport still enjoy the theatre the Giro presents each May.
Great theatre, however, requires diverse characters and, with the odd exception, I can't think of many sporting events to match the Giro in that regard. In the first week, we have seen stage wins by Columbian, Austrian, German, Swiss and Slovenian riders; the Eritrean national champion Daniel Teklehaimanot wearing the Maglia Azzuri jersey as the leader of the mountains competition; and a rider from Luxembourg in pink as the race enters its second week.
Alfonsina Strada and the Giro Rosa
Given that BBR is Eurosport's UK sponsor for this year's Giro, and that BBR is all about getting people from different backgrounds back on bikes, it's fantastic that the event has such an international cast, yet can still retain its quintessential Italian style. Yes, I know, we are talking about a race for men only, but the Giro actually has an unusual place in the history books regarding the promotion of women's cycling.
Back in 1924, Italian cyclist Alfonsina Strada became the first and only women ever to ride one of the three Grand Tours. Having raced against boys and men since she was 13, Alfonsina won 36 races against men in her career, finishing 36th in the 1924 Giro. Jumping to modern times, it's the Giro Rosa which is the most important women's stage race, with the ten-day 2017 edition starting on 30 June, concluding on 9 July with a stage which ascends Mount Vesuvius near Naples.
Qhubeka and bicycles changing lives
As for getting more people cycling, and promoting the benefits of cycling, Daniel Teklehaimanot in a leader's jersey in any major race, let along the Giro, is just such a rewarding sight. Teklehaimanot rides for the Dimension Data team, the full name of which is Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. Known as MTN-Qhebeka until 2016, the team's name reflects that it's organised by the Qhubeka Foundation, the World Bicycle Relief's charity programme in South Africa.
The Qhubeka project is founded on the belief that bicycles change lives in Africa by creating access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. Their goal for 2017 is to fund 5,000 bicycles for people through Qhubeka. As the current national champion, and the first African rider to wear the polka dot jersey as best climber at the Tour De France, Teklehaimanot is a sporting superstar in Eritrea. His team also provide a reminder to those who seek to promote everyday cycling not to neglect what the glamour of competitive cycling can do to help promote the wider uptake of cycling, and the opportunities it can offer.
As for our pundits picks, the first week of the Giro has been something of a score draw, revealing little about the likely wearer of pink in Milan two weeks on Sunday.
Matt Mallinder tipped Nairo Quintana, who is one of a group of 11 favourites, including Jon Sharpe's selection Adam Yates, currently ten seconds behind current race leader, Luxembourg and Quick-Step Floors rider Bob Jungels. My choice Steven Kruiswijk, is trailing slightly, a further 13 seconds behind after being held up behind crashed riders in the hectic finish to stage 1. All three, however, looked strong on the first summit to Mount Etna on Stage 4.
If the main contenders have largely been shadow boxing until now, Sunday's stage 9 to the summit finish at Blockhaus is where the real fight will start. With a 13.6 km finishing climb, at an average gradient of 8.6%, this is one of those climbs which suits a pure climber.
Sparingly used over the years by the organisers, Blockhaus has nonetheless played its part in shaping Giro history. It was here in 1967, climbing to the old fortress built on its summit, that a young Eddy Merckx first made his mark in the high mountains, winning his maiden Grand Tour stage on his way to the first of what would become five Giro titles. It was at Blockhaus five years later that Merckx started to look human, losing time and finishing slumped over the handlebars in a state of exhaustion.
Blockhaus doesn't respect reputations, and this week, we have two new pundits on the panel, with their picks for the likely stage winner on Sunday at the old fortress.
Stage nine predictions
Our campaigns and communications co-ordinator Sam Jones has chosen a rider mentioned in dispatches in last week's blog, Sicilian rider Vincenco Nibali from Bahrein-Merida. Twice a Giro winner and defending champion, Lo Squalo (the Shark), must be a good bet, and looked strong attacking 3 km from the summit at Mount Etna on stage 4.
Many are predicting the overall contenders to battle for the stage win between them on Sunday. Our policy officer Cherry Allan however suspects that the neutrals' favourite Daniel Teklehaimanot will try his usual, and often successful tactic, and look to sneak into an early break to hit Blockhaus with a lead over the main field, before launching an attack not merely for the stage win, but also to secure King of the Mountain points to regain the Maglia Azzuri. If Cherry's right, expect some ecstatic fans and crazy scenes at the finish.
My pick for victory on Sunday is the French rider Thibaut Pinot from the FDJ team who, on top form, is one of the world's very best climbers. Third and winner of the white jersey for best young rider at the 2013 Tour De France, he has had to bear the burden of being feted as the next great French hope for Grand Tour success, something they have been waiting for since Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) in 1995. This is a climb which should suit Pinot however, and he comes into the race in good form having won a stage win in last month's Tour of the Alps.
TV coverage - and BBR
Those of you with Eurosport subscription can watch the race live, with coverage starting at around 12 noon most days. If you're out cycling on Sunday, however, Eurosport's highlights programme is on at 8.00pm for an hour, and those not subscribed to Eurosport can join me on the 10.00pm shift, when the recorded highlights are shown on free to-air channel Quest, one of Eurosport's sister channels available free to UK viewers.
I hope you're enjoying the unfolding drama that is the Giro, but it would also be great if, when you see our BBR advert, you can give a thought to anyone you know who might need a nudge to get their bike revived, tell them about BBR, and join us in thinking pink this month, and getting more people cycling.
Giving the confidence back to get cycling
In case you're not convinced about BBR, let me tell you about Helen Pollard, who became a Cycling UK member back in 2014. Helen and her husband Mike benefited from our training courses, and then grew their business, Stage 1 Cycles, which offers services in their local community in Hawes, North Yorkshire. These include cycle hire, repairs, cycle tours and advice for visitors to the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Helen is now running a variety of events for BBR this summer, and anticipates engaging with over 30 people each week in cycling activities.
These are the people we want to engage through BBR events. It's not just about fixing old bikes. It involves finding out about local cycling groups, and giving people the confidence to get back cycling. As Qhubeka might say: bicycles can change some people's lives.