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A gentleman and a gentle man

Sir Bobby Robson CBE
1933-2009
R.I.P.

After a long battle with cancer, Bobby Robson passed away this morning.

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but I will just note a summary of his achievements below.

18 years a player, including 20 England caps.

13 years as manager of Ipswich Town, winning both the 1978 FA Cup and the 1981 UEFA Cup.

Manager of the England national side for eight years. Remains one of only two men to have led England to a World Cup semi-final. At the helm for two of the national team’s most memorable World Cup defeats: the 1986 quarter-final against Argentina, which saw Diego Maradona‘s controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal, and the 1990 semi-final against West Germany, remembered by all for Gazza‘s tears and an emotional penalty shootout.

One of a tiny handful of English managers to enjoy success outside the British Isles, with stints in charge of PSV Eindhoven (twice), Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona, before returning to take charge of his beloved Newcastle United from 1999 to 2004.

Winner of the Dutch league title with PSV in 1991 and 1992, and the Portuguese title with Porto in 1995 and 1996.

Led Barcelona to three trophies, including a European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in 1997. While there, mentored a young Portuguese named Jose Mourinho.

Mere facts and statistics do not come close to telling the full story, though. Robson was a hugely respected manager and a man utterly without enemies. And his paternal smile concealed a man of immense strength; a man who, sadly, wilted away before our eyes as the effects of cancer took a cumulative toll. I watched his last public appearance for the tribute match in his name at St James’ Park last Sunday and saw an emaciated fighter nearing the end; I had no idea quite how near. His passing will be mourned by all football fans.

Farewell, Sir Bobby. You were in every respect a gentleman and a gentle man. Football is a poorer place today without you.

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Six-shooter

The Tour de France is a race steeped in tradition, and yesterday’s 21st and final stage into Paris was no exception.

As is traditional, Astana, the team of the maillot jaune Alberto Contador, led the way onto the Champs Élysées. As is traditional, a breakaway launched itself off the front of the pack shortly after. And, as has become traditional during the 2009 edition of the Tour, Mark Cavendish won the sprint.

As if there was ever really any doubt.

The ‘Manx Missile’ contested six finishes at this year’s Tour and won them all, bringing his career total in this race alone to ten. Add that to his three stages at May’s Giro d’Italia and his win in the Milan-San Remo one-day classic, and he has already had a more successful 2009 than the majority of professional cyclists have careers.

Yesterday’s win on the Champs Élysées was the one Cavendish has been most coveting all along, and it was the easiest of the lot. Despite Garmin’s concerted, and initially successful, attempt to disrupt the Columbia HTC lead-out train in the closing kilometres, Cav’s more experienced team was still able to take prime position in the final kilometre. Big George Hincapie drove them into the Place de la Concorde where Mark Renshaw took over; Garmin’s Julian Dean, attempting to pilot Tyler Farrar into a position to challenge, tried a desperate kamikaze move to cut in front of Renshaw across the inside of the final bend but succeeded only in disrupting everyone else; Renshaw towed Cavendish unchallenged to the line to the extent that, easing up, he was able to finish second himself, and Cav kicked down for the sheer joy of it to win by around thirty metres – the equivalent of Usain Bolt’s astonishing winning margin at the 100 metres in Beijing.

Afterwards, Cavendish was predictably ecstatic with his day’s – and his three weeks’ – work. “I said all along I wanted to win on the Champs Élysées and the feeling doesn’t disappoint. Every sprinter in the world dreams of crossing the line with their hands in the air on the Champs Élysées, and I wanted this so bad. I came here wanting to win as many stages as possible. I said I would have been content with one stage and reaching Paris, and I’ve done that and we can go home and be so happy with what we’ve done here. We’ve had a beautiful three weeks.”

And he went on to put the final full stop on his post-Besançon spat with Thor Hushovd, having already publicly apologised to him on Friday and joining him in a strictly-for-laughs mock sprint for 104th place at the top of Mont Ventoux yesterday. “Everybody knows I mouth off when I’m upset. It’s the mentality of the sprinter: you get upset in the heat of the moment, but when you have time to reflect on it you see you’re in the wrong. [Thor] is a great, great guy on the bike and off the bike. We’ve always got on well and to fall out over something so silly, it’s not really worth it.”

With yesterday’s win, Cavendish becomes the first rider to claim six stages in a single Tour since Bernard Hinault won seven in 1979. After a race in which only one other stage – the sixth, to Barcelona, won by Hushovd – was claimed by a fellow green jersey sprinter, and having dominated last year’s sprints as well, Cav can already stake a claim to being right up among the sport’s greatest fast men, which would see him rubbing shoulders with sprint deities such as Freddy Maertens and Mario Cipollini. That’s pretty exalted company to be keeping.

Forget about Andy Murray. Never mind Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton. Here we have a Brit who is quantifiably, indisputably the best in the world at what he does. That is a cause for major celebration.

And, better still, it is not just Cav. Bradley Wiggins maintained his overall fourth place at the finish, matching Robert Millar as the best-ever finish by a British rider. With Team Sky joining the professional peloton next season, British cycling has never been in better health.

Massa’s miracle

Imagine a large bag of sugar falling out of a cupboard onto your head. Now picture being hit in the head by someone throwing it as hard as they can. Finally, imagine the same thing happening at three times that speed.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Felipe Massa during qualifying yesterday for the Hungarian Grand Prix. An 800g spring became dislodged from Rubens Barrichello’s car in front of him, which then bounced up and struck the Brazilian driver, following behind at 150 mph, on the head. The blow rendered him immediately unconscious, and his car speared off into the tyre wall at the side of the track. Photographic images of Massa being lifted out of his car by paramedics clearly show both where the missile struck the left side of his helmet and a nasty-looking injury to his left eye. He was immediately helicoptered to a hospital in Budapest with ‘life-threatening injuries’, where after a successful emergency operation he is now apparently stable and in a medically-induced coma to prevent further cranial damage.

It is testament to the safety measures which have been introduced into Formula 1 over the last forty years that Massa is still alive.

In the days of Moss, Fangio and their black-and-white TV brethren with their leather helmets, the initial impact of the spring would certainly have killed Massa. And if by some miracle that hadn’t, the resulting crash in his car – probably with a concrete wall (no tyre barriers back then) – would have finished the job. Without the strength of carbon fibre monocoques and energy-absorbing collapsible designs, the impact would have shattered both legs and body. Debris from the shattering car – untethered wheels, suspension parts, bodywork – might have punctured or caved in his head or rib-cage. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a strong chance the unprotected fuel tank would also have exploded, possibly incinerating him before help could arrive.

As it was, the combination of a modern F1 design and the tyre barrier did their job in dissipating the massive energy involved in a 100 mph-plus crash away from the driver. And Massa’s helmet, shattered though it was, largely withstood the bulk of the impact and would also have absorbed a massive amount of energy. Without it, his skull might well have been shattered rather than fractured. In short, contemporary safety measures ensured Felipe Massa was taken from the Hungaroring to a hospital for an operation, rather than to the mortuary for a post-mortem.

40 years ago, maybe even as recent as 10-15, that would not have been the case. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, coming as it does at the end of a week when Sir John Surtees’ son Henry was killed by an untethered wheel in a crash at Brands Hatch, it is easy to over-react and point to the obvious dangers of competing in open-topped, single-seater racers. But danger is part of the excitement of Formula 1 – without it, it is little more than live action Scalextric – and while huge efforts have been undertaken (and continue to be) to mitigate the risks, it will never be possible to remove it completely.

Instead, I believe it’s more relevant to consider how few major safety incidents Formula 1 has experienced in recent years. Yes, we have had pit-lane fires, spectacular crashes (Robert Kubica’s terrifying end-over-end cartwheel at Montreal two years ago, for instance), and some quite nasty injuries (Michael Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone in 1999, say). But in reality it has been 15 years since the last driver fatality at an F1 race (Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994), and the last two life-threatening injuries in F1 were, I believe, Karl Wendlinger at Monaco in 1994 and Mika Hakkinen at Adelaide the following year. Both Wendlinger and Hakkinen suffered terrible head trauma but recovered fully enough to return to racing – Hakkinen went on to win world titles in 1998 and 1999. We have become accustomed to drivers emerging from the most horrific-looking incidents with little more than a broken fingernail, ruffled hair and a mild headache; it’s in this context that yesterday’s events seem particularly shocking.

Complacency is the enemy of progress, but in the specific area of safety this is one F1 really does have a good record. Now is not the time for finger-pointing and over-reaction. It is a time to acknowledge the massive safety advances made in F1 over the years. And for prayer. It is no miracle that Massa survivied yesterday’s freak accident; it is simply the appliance of science in a sport which is more than aware of its own dangers.

Best wishes to Felipe Massa for a full and speedy recovery.

Damp squib

In the end, the stage which the Tour de France organisers had set up to guarantee fireworks on the penultimate day of the race delivered little more than a succession of damp squibs.

Sure, we saw the lead bunch quickly whittled down to just the main contenders. And yes, we did see a string of accelerations which repeatedly stretched and occasionally splintered the group. But there was never a truly destructive, sustained attack from anyone, and on a day which started with high hopes – and a mere 38 seconds separating third from sixth – by the time the leaders had crossed the finish line at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the only change at the top of the general classification was that Frank Schleck had swapped places with Andreas Klöden for fifth, and had missed out on overtaking Bradley Wiggins by four seconds.

In the end, it was a combination of the conditions (headwinds of up to 40kph near the top of the climb, hardly unusual for Ventoux) and tactics – Andy Schleck’s repeated attacks (12 in all), aimed primarily at trying to leapfrog his brother into a podium place, were generally abandoned within seconds because Frank could not keep pace. Every time an attack succeeded in dislodging one or more members of the lead pack, the younger Schleck would relent, allowing not just his brother but everyone else to regain lost ground.

After several rounds of quick-slow-quick-slow, it became obvious that the remnants of the breakaway which had led since the early kilometres were going to succeed in staying clear at the front, thanks to the chess game going on behind them. That should in no way diminish the achievements of Juan Manuel Garate and Tony Martin, who were the only two of the original sixteen to survive, but the fact is that a genuine flat-out race among the yellow jersey group would have swallowed them up before the finish.

Anyhow, the record will show that in the last couple of hundred metres, Garate sped clear to claim a fine win for both himself and his beleaguered Rabobank squad, who have endured a miserable three weeks, as both their overall contender, Denis Menchov (winner of May’s Giro d’Italia) and their sprinter Oscar Freire had disappeared virtually without trace.

And just because the pace was less than flat-out doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough going. While Alberto Contador seemed to have little problem responding to Andy Schleck’s constant attacks, Klöden was repeatedly dropped, and by the final three kilometres, at which point Schleck launched perhaps his biggest attack of all, it was becoming clear that Wiggins was at his absolute limit too. As he increasingly lost touch with the lead group, now also containing Frank Schleck, his fourth place came under serious threat. With just 23 seconds separating him from Wiggins, Frank endured an agonising wait after crossing the finish line, counting the gap until the Brit’s arrival. Finally, squeezing out every last scrap, Wiggins all but collapsed over the line … 20 seconds behind Frank. He had held onto fourth by three seconds – equivalent to maybe 20 metres – but it is a fine achievement for a rider who has never previously finished inside the top 100 in Paris.

That was pretty much it as far as the serious racing was concerned, although there was an amusing cameo some 25 minutes later as a large and tired gruppetto trundled towards the finish. New best buddies Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd shared a laugh and staged a mock sprint … for 104th place. Cavendish finished ahead – as he has done repeatedly throughout this Tour – but this was merely a microcosm of what we had seen with the leaders earlier: a slow-motion, not-quite race that had no impact whatsoever on the overall results.

It’s a shame. This final week of the Tour has been consistently thrilling, building to a crescendo today that never quite happened. No one is to blame, but at the same time I can’t help but feel slightly cheated, like turning up to a football match only to find it has been postponed.

But that’s just the way sport is. It has the capacity to delight and frustrate in equal measure, and on the whole this has been a good Tour, with twists and turns aplenty both on and off the road. We have seen Contador emerge victorious from his intra-team battle with Lance Armstrong; Lance himself has defied both his age and the sceptics by earning a podium finish four years after his initial retirement; Hushovd and Cavendish have engaged in a fascinating tortoise-and-hare battle for the green jersey.

I’m just hoping Cav will sign off with a (sixth) win tomorrowin Paris. I don’t think any sane observer could argue he doesn’t deserve it. Add that to Wiggo’s fourth place and it would end the 2009 Tour on a real high note for British cycling, which has never been in ruder health.

Overall standings after stage 20:
1. Alberto Contador 81h 46’ 17”
2. Andy Schleck @ 4’ 11″ behind
3. Lance Armstrong @ 5’ 24”
4. Bradley Wiggins @ 6’ 01”
5. Frank Schleck @ 5’ 59”
6. Andreas Klöden @ 6’ 42”
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 7′ 35″
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 12′ 04″
9. Roman Kreuziger @ 13′ 16″
10. Christophe Le Mevel @ 14′ 25″

Is Mark Cavendish the new Lance Armstrong?

No, I haven’t gone stark raving mad. No, I’m not suggesting that Mark Cavendish is ever going to wear the yellow jersey into Paris. And no, I’m not saying that he will still be racing in Grand Tours at the age of 37, as Lance Armstrong is doing.

What I am saying is that, on a day that Cavendish became the first man to win five stages in a single Tour de France since Armstrong himself in 2004, he is starting to show some of the characteristics which have made ‘Big Tex’ the centre of both competitive and media attention for so many years.

Three examples of how these two men – so different in so many other ways – are similar:

Yesterday’s stage from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas – relatively flat but with the category two climb of the Col de L’Escrinet just 16 km from the finish – was an obvious candidate for a harmless breakaway to have their day in the sun while the leading men saved their energies for Mont Ventoux tomorrow (in the case of the GC riders) and the Champs Élysées on Sunday (for the sprinters). Instead, it was Cavendish’s will which shape the outcome of the stage.

Like Armstrong in his US Postal & Discovery days, Cavendish has his Columbia HTC team focussed solely around him, completely subjugating their individual objectives. Having decided that, instead of trailing in behind in the autobus, he was going to get over the L’Escrinet and contest the finish, that then became his team’s sole aim. So when Cavendish and Columbia set off with the main bunch in pursuit of the day’s breakaway over the climb, that then forced Thor Hushovd to cover his wheel to defend his green jersey, which in turn ensured Milram worked for Gerald Ciolek, Rabobank for Oscar Freire and so on. From the repercussions of a single rider’s decision, the breakaway was thus doomed. Columbia nursed Cav over the mountain, worked hard to ensure the break was caught, and set up the sprint. Which, naturally, Cavendish then won, kicking with nearly 300 metres to go as Ciolek tried to sneak up on him and sustaining his speed to the line, eventually beating Hushovd by a length. It was mighty impressive stuff from a rider who is reputed to catch a cold at the first sign of an uphill gradient.

But like Armstrong used to do to his rivals in the mountains, Cavendish also sets the agenda for those around him, often influencing how the stage unfolds as well as its final result.

Secondly, Cavendish is always good for a quote and has the knack of dominating media attention even when he’s not winning. And, like Armstrong, you certainly don’t want to get on his wrong side. Such is the attention he demands, everything he says – both positive and negative – carries enormous weight, and he has the ability to manipulate the media accordingly with an openness and forthrightness which does not always win him friends, but certainly guarantees good copy.

There was a great demonstration of this yesterday, when Cavendish very publicly apologised to Hushovd for his derogatory comments after last Saturday’s stage to Besançon, when he said that it was clear the only way the Norwegian felt he could beat him to the green jersey was with the aid of the officials. (Cavendish had been relegated to the back of the field after supposedly obstructing Hushovd’s sprint at the finish, a decision which effectively settled the green jersey competition in the latter’s favour.)

He went on to back that up last night in his interviews. “After Thor’s ride two days ago [when Hushovd led the way over the mountains to gain maximum points at two intermediate sprints], no one deserves to wear that jersey in Paris more than him,” Cavendish said. “OK, I wore the jersey and I thought that I could have it, but that was because I’d been delivered into the best position by my team. But somebody who’s fought for it like that – I can’t compete with something like that. It was humiliating for me the other day. That was a beautiful ride by Thor. He’s not just been put in the best position by his team. I got a bit carried away when I was in the race for the green but now I’m just concentrating on stage wins like I planned when I came into the race.”

For a young man who has a reputation for speaking from the heart and shooting from the hip – and who his many detractors accuse of being arrogant – this was a remarkable display of humility and maturity from a man who sometimes allows his undoubted passion for the sport to overrule his head.

And that brings me on to the third point of similarity with Armstrong. Even though both present a polished persona to the public – Armstrong the elder statesman and the ’corporate’ face of the sport; Cavendish the cheeky young scallywag – behind the mask both burn with the same intense, single-minded competitive fire and volcanic temper. The stories of Armstrong’s private reactions to anything which displeases him are legion, and Cav is no different. They both know what they want, they are both 100% focussed on getting it, and woe betide anyone who stands in their way. That rage is part of what makes them winners; it is clear that, just like the American, Mark Cavendish frequently produces his best when he is angry and thinks the whole world is against him.

Overall, I get the sense that – at the tender age of 24 and in only his third full year as a pro – Cavendish is already one of the most powerful men in the professional peloton, in some ways even more so than the maillot jaune, Alberto Contador, with his faltering English and relatively reserved personality.

That is perhaps the most amazing thing of all.

Don’t get me wrong, Cav isn’t Lance yet. But then Lance wasn’t the Lance we know either until after his first Tour win in 1999, at which point he was 27: three years older than Cavendish currently is.

Right here right now, Cav already has nine Tour stage wins to his name – more than other elite fast men Hushovd (seven wins) or Tom Boonen (six) – is unquestionably the most feared sprinter in the peloton and is able to command considerable influence on the road and many column inches off it. Imagine what he could be like in three years’ time, with a dozen more Grand Tour stage wins and possibly a green jersey or two under his belt.

So, let me say it once again: Mark Cavendish could be the new Lance Armstrong.

Doesn’t seem so far fetched now does it?

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