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My sporting month: September 2010

With the Premier League in full swing, the Euro qualifying campaign getting under way, and both domestic and European cup competitions ramping up this month, you could be forgiven for thinking September is all about football, football and still more football, with a side serving of football.

But there is plenty of great sport on all across the world this month, so here are five of the big sporting events – both football and non-football – which I will be settling down into the armchair to watch over the next 30 days.

1. NFL regular season kick-off (9th-13th)

Defending champion New Orleans Saints host the Minnesota Vikings – for whom quarterback and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre returns for an incredible 20th season of football – in the Thursday night curtain-raiser on the 9th.

In terms of history and tradition, the highlight of the opening round is probably the Dallas Cowboys versus the Washington Redskins, but I will be watching out for the San Francisco 49ers, who visit division rival Seattle Seahawks looking to end a series of seven straight seasons in which they have failed to win the NFC West, the longest barren spell since their first Super Bowl season of 1981. Surely this year …?

2. UEFA Champions League Matchdays 1 & 2 (14th/15th & 28th/29th)

The most fiercely contested club competition in world football returns this month with the opening two matchdays of the group phase. The draw, conducted in Monaco last Thursday, pits three of the historic giants of European football – AC Milan, Real Madrid and Ajax – in the same group.

Matchday 1 sees Manchester United play Rangers at Old Trafford, with Arsenal hosting Braga and Chelsea and Tottenham travelling to MŠK Žilina and Werder Bremen respectively. But the two biggest ties of the first round will see Real Madrid play Ajax, while Bayern Munich welcome Roma.

The tie of the round in matchday 2 sees Ajax host AC Milan. Tasty stuff.

3. Premier League: Man Utd vs Liverpool (19th) and Man City vs Chelsea (25th)

After an opening weekend draw with Arsenal, this is Liverpool‘s second major test of the season as they attempt to regain a top-four spot with a visit to the home of their bitter rivals. Even in relatively poor seasons, Liverpool have often upset United and will be looking to do so again in what promises to be a ferocious and passionate match.

The following Saturday (the 25th), Man City host Chelsea in an intriguing showdown between the wealthiest club in football versus the team who used to hold that mantle. As the current Premier League champions, it is Chelsea who City have directly in their sights as they strive to turn hundreds of millions of pounds of investment into tangible results. It promises to be a fascinating match-up, and a genuine yardstick for City to measure their potential against.

4. AFL Grand Final (25th)

The vagaries of the Aussie Rules playoff system means that it takes three knockout rounds to whittle the eight qualifying teams down to the two finalists. (Don’t ask.) While my team, the West Coast Eagles, finished sixteenth and last on the league ladder Collingwood, coached by former Eagles’ head man Mick Malthouse, go into the finals series as the top-seeded club.

The Grand Final will take place at the MCG on Saturday 25th, but the knockout action begins this Friday. With the entire season at stake, expect a series of tough, no-hold-barred battles.

Lewis Hamilton en route to winning last year's Singapore GP (image courtesy of Nir Sinay)

5. Singapore Grand Prix (26th)

With the F1 drivers’ championship still too close to call – just three points separate Lewis Hamilton from second-placed Mark Webber after Sunday’s Belgian GP – the spectacular night race around the streets of Singapore heralds the end of the European season and the beginning of a long, five-race haul to the end of a season which looks like going right down to the final race in Abu Dhabi in November.

Will Hamilton extend his lead? Or can Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso haul themselves back into contention?

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Antón conquers uphill task, but Gilbert stays in the red

On a day overshadowed by the death of Laurent Fignon, Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Antón claimed stage four of the Vuelta a España at the top of a short but brutal final climb which featured gradients of up to 25%.

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Although yesterday’s 184km stage from Málaga to Valdepeñas de Jaén included three categorised climbs, with the summit of the second-category Alto de Valdepeñas de Jaén less than eight kilometres from the finish, the race was all about the final kilometre.

The day’s breakaway had been hauled in comfortably, with Philippe Gilbert‘s Omega Pharma-Lotto team working hard to protect the race leader, and by the time the race reached the summit and short descent from the Alto de Valdepeñas de Jaén, the lead group had been reduced to an elite selection.

Luis León Sánchez was first to attack three kilometres out, ekeing out a small advantage before being reeled in with 1.5 km to go. Caisse d’Epargne teammate Rigoberto Urán immediately counter-attacked and briefly looked like snapping the elastic as he sped up the foot of the final uncategorised climb in the small town of Valdepeñas de Jaén.

Merely steep at first, the hill kicks up dramatically at about the 700-metre mark, attaining an eye-watering maximum gradient of 25%. Even the foreshortening effect of television, which tends to flatten slopes, could not disguise how sharp an ascent this was, with all the riders forced to churn the pedals furiously. On this steepest section, immediately preceded by a sharp right-hand turn to kill any momentum leading up to it, it looked almost as if it might be quicker for the riders to climb off their bikes and push them uphill.

Stage four winner Igor Anton

Katusha‘s Joaquim Rodriguez launched his own attack here to try to leapfrog Urán, but Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) clung on to his wheel. Then, with 350 metres to go, Antón leapt decisively away from all of them. Although Nibali, Velits and Rodriguez came close to bridging the gap in the final 100 metres as Antón started to (literally) wobble, he had just enough left in the tank to capture his second career Vuelta stage.

Stage three winner Philippe Gilbert finished fifth, just five seconds behind Antón, and retained the red jersey by ten seconds. And 22-year old Tejay van Garderen of HTC-Columbia continued his fine early showing, finishing just behind Gilbert, and holding sixth place overall. It looks like American cycling has confirmed its bright young star.

A small group containing most of the other big contenders – Menchov, Schleck, Arroyo, Urán – finished together 19 seconds down.

The biggest casualty of the day was 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, who was dropped before the final climb and could only finish 1:34 down. He is already 2:15 off the race lead, with the first of the big mountains yet to come.

Antón later revealed that he had specifically targeted this stage because its final climb closely resembles the similarly angular Mur de Huy hill at the end of Flèche-Wallonne, a race in which he finished fourth this year:

I did the right thing by coming here one and a half months ago to reconnoitre the end of today’s stage.

I remembered the finale of the Flèche-Wallonne where I made the mistake of attacking too early this year. It was a useful defeat because I learned what not to do in these circumstances. I calculated my effort pretty well, although I was afraid of Nibali passing me at the very end.

He also pointed to Rodriguez, who has placed highly on both uphill finishes to date and currently lies just ten seconds off Gilbert’s lead, as the most likely candidate for overall victory:

My goal for the Vuelta was to win a stage. Rodriguez is very strong and I think he’s the favourite for the overall victory. I have the condition to do something good but I haven’t won any small stage race yet. I must improve gradually first.

Nibali, now fourth and just 12 seconds back, was again impressive on the final climb. He said he was feeling strong, and looks to be in the kind of form that propelled him on to the podium at the Giro:

The final was very hard. Though I couldn’t win, my performance shows that I am in good form. I am feeling good for the Vuelta. I missed the Tour so I want to have a good ride here in Spain.

After the past two day’s vicious finishes, the riders will be glad that today’s stage to Lorca – and indeed the two days following – sees a return to flatter terrain, with the sprinters leaping forward from the back of the autobus – most of them finished 20 minutes down yesterday – to reclaim pride of place at the front of the peloton. However, Mark Cavendish‘s chances of claiming a first career Vuelta stage were dealt a blow when his most senior lead-out man, Bernhard Eisel, withdrew yesterday.

Stage 4 result:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 5:00:29

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:01

3. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) same time

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) s/t

5. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:05

6. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) +0:08

7. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:12

8. Nicolas Roche (AG2R) +0:12

9. Ruben Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:12

10. Rigoberto Urán (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:19

General classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 13:56:30

2. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:10

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:10

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:12

5. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +0:16

6. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) +0:29

7. Xavier Tondo (Cervelo) +0:49

8. Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:50

9. Rubén Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:54

10. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:55

Points classification

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 41 pts

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 37

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 34

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 34

5. Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) 25

Mountains classification

1. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 13 pts

2. Dario Cataldo (Quick Step) 8

3. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 6

4. Oscar Pujol (Cervelo) 5

5. Niki Terpstra (Milram) 5

For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent steephill.tv.

Laurent Fignon, 1960-2010

It was with great sadness yesterday afternoon that I read that Laurent Fignon, two-time winner of the Tour de France, had lost his battle against metastatic cancer. He had only recently turned 50.

Laurent Fignon. RIP (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Winner of La Grande Boucle in 1983 and 1984, and also the Giro d’Italia in 1989, he is perhaps best known for the one that got away – the 1989 Tour, which he lost in dramatic fashion to the American Greg Lemond.

I remember it well, as it was the first year in which I took an interest in the Tour. The yellow jersey had yo-yoed backwards and forwards between the pair throughout the race – LeMond claimed it twice, Fignon reclaimed it twice – with the gap between the two never more than 53 seconds.

Going into the final stage in Paris – an individual time trial – Fignon led by a seemingly decisive 50 seconds. But LeMond – a brilliant time trialist using then-revolutionary extended handlebars to reduce his aerodynamic profile – not only won the stage but finished 58 seconds faster than Fignon, the last man on the road, to win by eight seconds. It remains the narrowest winning margin in Tour history.

It was a defeat which, sadly, came to define the career of ‘Le Professeur’ (on account of his round, thin-framed glasses and ponytail) more than his two victories.

As part of their 20 Greatest Tour Moments a couple of years ago, ITV4 compiled this brief summary of one of the most amazing pieces of live sport ever. It is six minutes long, but well worth reliving:

L’Equipe summed the finish of the race up perfectly with its front page headline the following morning: “Inoubliable!” (Unforgettable!)

At 22, Fignon had become the youngest winner of the Tour in 50 years in 1983 after race leader Pascal Simon was forced to withdraw with injuries sustained in a fall. He capped his unexpected triumph with an individual time trial win in the penultimate stage, and took two further time trials among his five stage wins as he retained the yellow jersey in dominant fashion the following year.

A knee injury robbed him of the chance to complete a hat-trick of wins in 1985, and his career began to decline thereafter. But in 1989 – possibly boosted by the doping to which he admitted only last year – he came back at the top of his game, winning both Milan-San Remo and the Giro. But for LeMond’s aerodynamic advantage in the final time trial, he would probably have added the Tour as well.

He never scaled such heights again, although he did win one final Tour stage in 1992 before retiring a year later.

Fignon was a private man, but in a rare and lengthy post-retirement interview with Cycle Sport in 2005, he described how racing always brought out the best in him:

I am a winner, I like competition, and I like winning. Competition brings out the best in me. When I was a rider, I could never go well in training, but in competition it was different.

Looking back on the 1989 Tour, he said:

Losing is not good. Look, what does history remember? History remembers the winner, and forgets the circumstances.

Yes, I am remembered because I lost a race. 
But when I lost I was not happy. It was a great disappointment, very sad for me. If I had won that day, I would have been a three-time winner. And it’s indicative of the French attitude to sport that I am remembered more as the guy who lost the Tour de France by eight seconds.

But I’m lucky to have earned myself a certain notoriety in France, mainly thanks to 1989. Today, and it is with great regret that I say this, in France it can be better to have lost than to have won.

People remember the Tour of 1989 because it was a nice fight, a good scrap. It was an interesting Tour, as Tours go. I was disappointed at the time, sure, but over time the disappointment has disappeared. There are more serious things in the world.

In the summer of 2009, Fignon published an autobiography, ‘Nous étions jeunes et insouciants’ (‘We were young and carefree’), and revealed that he was undergoing treatment for metastatic cancer, which had spread from his lungs to his digestive system. He died yesterday, August 31st, at 12:30pm in hospital in Paris.

Talking about himself earlier this year, Fignon said:

I love life, laughter, travel, books, good food, like a good Frenchman.

Sometimes when I was physically at my best I could sense moments of utter ecstasy, those rare fleeting times when you are in total harmony with yourself and the elements around you: nature, the noise of the wind, the smells.

Let’s not get carried away. But I have to confess: I was happy.

Fignon is survived by his second wife, Valerie, and two children by his first wife, from whom he divorced in 2000.

Laurent Fignon

12 August 1960 – 31 August 2010

RIP

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