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Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 14:23 UK

A French adventure

EUROPEAN EVENTING CHAMPIONSHIPS
Venue: Fontainebleau, France Dates: 25-27 September Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, the red button and the BBC Sport website (UK only)

Lizzie Greenwod-Hughes
By Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes
BBC Radio 5 live's equestrian reporter and Football League Show presenter

Imagine yourself, an England football fan travelling to the World Cup with Steve Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, or a Wales rugby fan following Ryan Jones and Shane Williams during the Six Nations.

Tina Cook and William Fox-Pitt
Tina and William with the horses at the service station

That's what it's like for me this week. Except in my case, the World Cup or Six Nations is the European Eventing Championships in France and instead of chatting to Rooney and Co. on a plane or bus, I'm having a cup of tea with top British riders William Fox-Pitt and Tina Cook in the back of an 18 tonne lorry with £1m worth of horses in the back.

Yes I am officially embedded with the British team, the defending European champions.

For seven days I will be privy to most of their activities from travelling with them to the event near Paris, to observing their training, going to dinner with them and of course following their progress in the competition.

They've allowed me unprecedented access and I feel like a small child in a sweet shop.

My adventure started on Monday evening. The team manager, Yogi Breisner, had organised for everyone to meet at William's yard in Dorset before heading off to the overnight ferry in Portsmouth.

606: DEBATE

However the riders realised this was geographical madness as they live in different corners of the country and independently planned a new, more direct route.

So in the end I arrived to find just William at the yard with his horse Idalgo or 'Frog' as he's known. We were due to pick up Tina who's based in Sussex and her horse Miners Frolic or 'Henry' at the port.

William's yard is probably the finest equestrian establishment I have seen. It was purpose-built for him and has everything a professional horseman could ever need.

There's even an integrated giant garage for his giant lorry with an equally giant picture on the wall of William riding to one of his numerous Burghley victories.

William is a bit like the Roger Federer of eventing. Not only is he the world number one with multiple wins at most major competitions but he's also at that age where he's kind of an elder statesman even though at 40 he's still relatively young in the sport.

Tina Cook and William Fox-Pitt
Tina and William with the horses at the service station

So here's a man comfortable in his own skin. He let me fire a thousand questions at him while expertly steering the monster lorry through the lanes and answered them all with a refreshing frankness. How many top level sportsmen would put up with a reporter hanging on their every word whilst also driving themselves and all their equipment hundreds of miles for a major championship?

We discussed everything including how the sport has changed over the years which led to William admitting some of his past equine stars such as Chaka would be "useless" in today's competitions.

We also had an enjoyable style rant about the growing problem of horses with unnecessarily long names and came to the conclusion five syllables should be the maximum allowed.

He satisfyingly answered my perennial Olympian question regarding where he keeps his medals, telling me his Beijing bronze spent a year buried under the jam pots in a cupboard in the lorry. Don't bother burglars, it's not there now!

William continued to talk openly throughout the rest of the journey often mentioning his family who he clearly adores and even divulged his plan to become a race horse trainer in the not too distant future. Like a lot of riders of his generation including Tina, who we were about to meet, William sees as a milestone beyond which his life may take a new direction.

Tina is also no stranger to British teams. She won an individual and team bronze at the Beijing Olympics but due to previously taking time off to have children, this is her first European Championships for eight years.

She's typical of an event rider in that representing her country is still what drives her to continue competing. She told me if she didn't have a horse good enough to make the British team she'd probably retire. In the age of professionalism, most sports including even show-jumping these days seem to have lost some of that patriotic dedication.

Tina and William are old mates. They've been competing alongside one another for over 20 years and as soon as they meet, immediately start nattering about family, the circuit and the week ahead. Eventers spend so much of their time away from home that they often see more of their fellow riders than their family.

Our journey took about six hours from Caen to Fontainebleau including a surreal stop at a service station where William and Tina grazed the horses just behind the petrol pumps!

Nicolas Touzaint
French riding star Nicolas Touzaint set to take centre stage

As well as being Tina's first Euros for a while, these are also the first major championships in a long time without team stalwart Mary King who had to pull out last month when her top horse Imperial Cavalier suffered a minor injury.

Instead there are three new kids on the team GB mounting block with Nicola Wilson riding Opposition Buzz replacing Mary and Lucy Wiegersma (Woodfalls Inigo Jones) and Piggy French (real name Georgina but everyone calls her Piggy after her sister thought she looked like a pig as a baby) on Some Day Soon riding as individuals.

The fourth member of the team is Piggy's boyfriend Oliver Townend on the great grey Flint Curtis. He was part of the last gold-medal winning European team and is the sport's golden boy at the moment with two major trophies this year in Badminton and Burghley.

So with such esteemed talent in the GB camp you'd expect medals and you'd probably be right. They're the most successful nation in the history of the European eventing championships and have won the last seven team titles.

However making it eight in a row will not be at all straightforward. For a start they didn't get a good draw. They due to start fifth behind Germany which is always a negative particularly in the dressage. Yogi said to me: "It's best to follow a poor team so the judges notice the difference and give you higher marks."

The Germans are sure to be good in every phase. They're the Olympic champions and are still enjoying a rich vein of form. Their star new boy, Michael Jung has two major titles under his belt this year on the magnificent la Biosthetique-Sam FBW (see what I mean about horses with long names?)

The hosts France are also revved up to take centre stage with the reigning individual champion Nicolas Touzaint plastered all over Fontainebleau on posters advertising the event.

Tina Cook
Tina Cook (right) celebrates last year after her Beijing exploits

It's a lovely town by the way. The locals call it 'the home of the horse' and with its beautiful castle and forest, it provides an exquisite backdrop to this event.

As usual at a major competition, the action starts on Thursday with the first of the three eventing disciplines - the dressage, on Thursday and Friday. Saturday is cross-country day and having just walked Pierre Michelet's course with the British team I think it could prove very influential.

It's largely set in the sandy forest along narrow, winding tracks. There are several tough combinations including one towards the end with a short approach to a huge flat top followed a few strides later with a skinny. This was the fence the riders spent most time looking at. It was fascinating listening to Yogi pass on his advice to them.

He didn't say much but it was the sort of advice only someone of his calibre could give. Like the angled double of brushes with a dust track in the middle which Yogi pointed out would confuse the horses as they would normally only see that fence on grass. "You need to really keep them straight here" was his advice. Let's hope they remember it!

The whole event climaxes on Sunday with the show-jumping. It should be a great competition. Bon chance everyone.

Lizzie is keeping a video diary of her travels with the GB team, which will be published next week, after the event in France.



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see also
GB allowed back into Nations Cup
06 Apr 10 |  Equestrian
Equestrian sport on the BBC
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