Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 review (plus a bit of Tour of Britain if you get that far..)

Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 

American Football has been described as ‘a game of inches’ such is the fine margin between victory and defeat. This years Vuelta may yet be decided on the seconds that have ebbed and flowed from Alberto Contador’s lead during the second week of the race. Contador took over the leaders jersey from the somewhat battered Nairo Quintana following the stage 10 individual time trial. Quintana, who lost enough time to fall out of the top ten altogether, crashed heavily enough to wreck his bike and reinforced the theory that 2014 is not a good year to be a race favourite in a grand tour. The Movistar rider was gone the following day (with echoes of Chris Froome’s depatrure from the Tour) following a in peloton accident early in the stage that added broken bones to the broken bike Quintana had suffered the day before. For a rider who only seems to have one facial expression to call on, Quintana showed emotion as it became clear he would need to abandon, although it was incongruous that he appeared to be grinning maniacally at the time.

Right rider, wrong jersey - Can Contador keep Red?

Right rider, wrong jersey – Can Contador keep Red?

So Contador took the lead and the questions now surrounded his form and fitness following his ill fated Tour. The suggestion that he had been sandbagging about his chances in the Vuelta, perhaps even returning earlier that reported to riding are superfluous as long as he is able to hold on to the race lead. The difficulty for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader is more so that he has not been able to make the most of the opportunities to put time into his key (remaining) rivals; Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and the aforementioned Froome. On more than one occasion during the last week Contador has attacked but he hasn’t been able to sustain long enough to break anyone. Is this a question of his fitness? Perhaps, but you can’t help feeling that Contador is lacking in the team stakes here. In particular, VCSE thinks that Contador would not be quite so isolated at the death of each stage if Mick Rogers or Nico Roche were around. Rogers, of course, has already got two grand tours under his belt this year and the Sky bound Roche is at the Tour of Britain. Compare and contrast the Tinkoff squad with Movistar, Sky or Katusha and it’s clear that Contador’s rivals have at least one or two trusted lieutenants (if not genuine contenders) in their line ups.

Writing this ahead of today’s stage (16) it feels like a disaster would have to befall Contador for him to lose the lead ahead of the final rest day, but the fact remains that his lead is a narrow one with three riders all capable of winning within two minutes of his jersey. Chris Froome has struggled at times, most obviously in the TT where he is one of the few GC riders who can genuinely put pressure on Tony Martin. The typically dizzying ramps of the Vuelta have upset him as he is not able to maintain the steady cadence that forms that basis of how Sky (still) ride most of the time. Froome has shown real determination though and every time he has looked dead and buried he’s managed to get back to and sometimes even in front of Contador. If he can remain within striking distance of Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez after today’s stage he’s got to be good for the podium, if not challenging for the win that Sky need so desperately to salvage their season. Rodriguez has been a bit of surprise package in week two and shares the same time as Froome on GC. He hasn’t looked like the best of the four at any time though and it’s hard to see him standing on the top step next weekend. Valverde has to be the main threat to Contador, in second place currently and less than a minute behind. There’s been much talk of Valverde needing to take a pay cut next season due to budget restrictions at Movistar. If he could take the Vuelta it would strengthen his hand considerably and in Quintana’s absence he has (and more importantly his teammates) the motivation to go for the win. The risk for the Spanish triumvirate is that game playing of the sort they indulged in yesterdays stage to Lagos de Covadonga will allow Froome to sneak through and take the prize from them. Sky looked at the formidable best when the delivered Froome to the foot of the climb on stage 14 and they need to be able to do this again in the final week if he’s really going to be in with a chance of victory.

What we haven’t seen much of yet is the GC guys going outright for stage wins (unlike Quintana at the Giro and Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour). Nibali’s Astana teammate and 2014 Giro revelation Fabio Aru has already claimed one stage win, That along with a likely top ten (if not top five) placing is probably already job done for the Italian. Lampre have some consolation that they have been unable to defend Chris Horner’s title from last year with a second stage win. It’s an indication that Horner would at least have had strong support, even if the idea of repeating his 2013 success seemed as unlikely as last years win was at the same stage a year ago.

Dan Martin survived an off road excursion yesterday to maintain his solid top ten performance. After his Giro debacle and missing the Tour, the Vuelta is the Garmin riders opportunity to salvage his season and potentially restablish himself as a GC contender in the eyes of team boss Jonathan Vaughters. Martin has gone for the win on a couple of stages and while these attacks haven’t delivered the result consistent high stage placings translate to (currently) 7th on GC, that could have been higher save for yesterdays crash. Garmin do have a stage win to their name though, thanks to a determined ride from Ryder Hesjedal on stage 14. Hesjedal crawled over ramps that the he had no business doing so and as the road finally began to level off overhauled his final breakaway companion to take the win.

With Nacer Bouhanni’s exit, John Degenkolb should be a shoe in for the points jersey. He’s still two short of his tally of five race wins in the 2012 Vuelta but Michael Matthews may yet spring a surprise. Both riders are better equipped than most sprinters to get over the climbs and it may come down to who is less fatigued next Sunday.

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Heavy climbs and picture break up – VCSE’s Racing Digest #36

Vuelta a Espana week 1 Review 

There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into  a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.

Alejandro Valverde – Hinault to Quintana’s Lemond?

Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”

Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its  3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.

Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.

The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.

VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.

What’s up with this picture?

Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised)  and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.

Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently  denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.

It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

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Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Commonwealth Games cycling

The 20th Commonwealth Games was bookended by its track and road cycling events. With a different mix of events included in comparison to the Olympics there wasn’t quite the same slew of medals seen at London 2012, but that also had a lot to do with the current state of GB track cycling. London was the last hurrah for the riders who had carried the success of the track programme on the shoulders since the beginning of the last decade. Sir Chris Hoy who would see the track events take place in his eponymously named velodrome had originally planned to retire at the games. Victoria Pendleton retired immediately after the London games and was a media presence at the games this time while her sometime nemesis Anna Meares continues to dominate the women’s sprint.

Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games - The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome

Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games – The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome

Part of the decline in British track cycling’s fortunes since London are put down to the four year Olympic cycle that sees the principal riders of the track team peak in line with that event. In other words; forget about the results now and look forward to Rio. So far the fall off in results doesn’t appear to be having an impact on the popularity of the event. Track meets featuring the medal winners from London like Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell are assured to be a sell out, even if the crowd don’t always get the result they want. The cheers for the household names are always the loudest, irrespective of the outcome in their particular event.

The decline has been most keenly felt in the men’s sprint. Hoy had been replaced by the younger Kenny in London, but since he took the Olympic gold his results have been patchy. Physically smaller than Hoy, Kenny wins his races with bike handling and guile more so than outright power, but he’s often struggled to make the final in meets in the last year. He took Silver in Glasgow, losing here to the New Zealand rider Sam Webster. One half of track cycling’s ‘golden couple’ Kenny’s girlfriend Laura Trott took her own Commonwealth gold in the points race, narrowly beating Elinor Barker. In contrast to the emotions shown by some of the home nations medal winners across the Glasgow games Trott had been embroiled in a bit of a social media spat ahead of the games by appearing to downplay the status of the event in comparison to the Olympics. Trott failed to say she had been outright misquoted in the Daily Mail interview, but she didn’t have quite the same profile at these games and seemed happy enough when she thought she had missed out on the winners medal in the immediate aftermath of the points race.

The women’s team pursuit where Trott had won the first of her Olympic golds with teammates Roswell and Dani King was missing in Glasgow. The dominant rider of the trio, Rowsell took the individual gold in a display that cements why she’s the current world champion in the event also.

One of the successful elements of the track programme (the whole games in fact) was the integration of the paralympic events within the schedule. Scotland’s Craig MacLean took two golds with Neil Fachie in the tandem events after returning to the track. MacLean had been one the very early successes of the GB track programme and his return makes you wonder of Hoy could do something similar in Rio. The likelihood is not, but there’s surely some merit in the MacLean model allowing further integration of paralympic sport as well as the prospect of raisin para sports profile yet further. It’s hard to mention MacLean as a rider returning in search of former glories without mentioning Bradley Wiggins having another tilt on the track. Wiggins returned to anchor the men’s team pursuit squad. Working with the team for barely a week before the games Wiggins seemed happy with a silver medal. As with the sprint the benchmark for success is gold in Rio in two years time. Wiggins is also extremely realistic about what can be achieved, he was similarly sanguine about his silver medal in last years world championship time trial defeat to Tony Martin.

Wiggins missed the individual time trial and road race in Glasgow and offered some thinly veiled thoughts on his road racing future in a wide ranging interview the day after the team pursuit. Describing the road scene as “..very political” he confirmed that he no longer expected to lead a team in a grand tour. Out of contract with Sky at the end of this season this admission would appear to limit where Wiggins could go next year, if indeed he does continue to race on the road. He’s been announced as a late call up to Sunday’s Ride London event, an indicator of the fact the Wiggins is box office as far as race organisers (if not Sky) are concerned. With Mark Cavendish choosing to pull out of the race as he continues to recover from his injury sustained at this years Tour it’s possible that Cavendish’s appearance money has been redirected in Wiggins direction.

Back to Wiggins plans for next year, the choice seems to be remaining with Sky on the basis that they will be more likely to accommodate his track plans or to do a (likely) very lucrative one year programme with another team who will bank on his marketability. This could open up any number of teams. With Jens Voigt retiring Trek might see the benefit of providing Wiggins with a birth to defend his Tour of California title and he could be a useful counterpoint to Fabian Cancellara in the classics. VCSE has mentioned BMC in the past, but that seems as unlikely as a move to Orica Greenedge who definitely wouldn’t be supportive of Wiggins building up to the track in Rio where Australia will also be targeting medals. Garmin, or whoever Garmin become next season when they hook up with Cannondale as a bike supplier might still be an option but as things stand it’s entirely possible that Wiggins will stay with Sky or even walk away from road cycling altogether. Wiggins retains the capacity to surprise us and whatever he ends up doing it may well be something that no one predicted!

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Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “..no better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

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Tour de France week 2 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #33

Nibali running out of rivals

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its first rest day speculation turned to who would be the next rider to bring a challenge to Vincenzo Nibali’s reclaimed race lead. Nibali had handed off the yellow jersey that he had claimed with his stage 2 victory in Sheffield to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin for a whole day before he took it back with an emphatic win atop the La Planche de Belle Filles.

Can he overtake Nibali? - Alejandro Valverde

Can he overtake Nibali? – Alejandro Valverde

Alberto Contador’s exit, like that of Chris Froome beforehand, had removed the Tour of its pre-race favourites and potentially leaves this years edition in search of a narrative beyond a seemingly locked on Nibali overall victory in Paris on Sunday. Sky touted Richie Porte as their new team leader, but this was a rider who had seemed out of sorts ever since he was switched from a defence of his 2013 Paris Nice title. That decision was an early indicator that Sky would be backing a solitary horse this season in Froome, although Porte was unfortunate to miss a further opportunity to lead when he missed the Giro through illness. Dave Brailsford has a reputation as a straight talker, however it’s hard to see that continue if he suggests that a rider is “..climbing better than ever” and said rider (Porte) folds on the first day of alpine climbing. The Tasmanian looked as if he knew he was a folorn hope as he was the first of the depeleted GC contenders to loose the wheel on the stage to Chamrousse.

Porte fell from second place to sixteenth and with more than ten minutes lost to Nibali conceded that he wouldn’t be a factor in this years race any longer leaving Sky looking for a plan C. As Nibali took his third stage win the GC shake up saw Alejandro Valverde move into second place and three French riders in the top ten. Valverde still occupies second place and perhaps more in search of story than a basis in reality it’s been suggested that he will challenge Nibali in the Pyrenees. With one Pyrenean stage down Nibali the Movistar attack has looked toothless so far. It’s certainly true that Nibali’s Astana teammates are seen as the chink in his otherwise impressive armour, but the truth is they haven’t performed any better or worse than domestiques on the other squads. Valverde had supporters in hand as the peloton climbed the Porte de Bales while Nibali had none, but by the time the latter crested the summit Valverde had been dropped. The two were back together at the finish, won in fine style from the break by Mick Rogers, but the chance for Valverde to take back some seconds had been missed.

Another rider leaving the Tour in the Alps was Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. The American had suffered a number of crashes including a spectacular coming together with Simon Gerrans at the finish of stage 7. In pain ahead of stage 11 Talansky was unable to make it back into the peloton and at one point was being gapped further by his teammates drilling the pack on the front. He made the time cut, just, after a period sat on the roadside where he either begged to continue or was persuaded to carry on. The truth of that isn’t clear, but if Talansky ever does a biography there’s a chapter that could write itself. He finished the stage, but was gone the next day.

Yesterday’s stage saw a twist to the developing story of the French GC challenge. AG2R have two riders in the top ten at opposite ends of the age scale. Leading the young riders classification at the start of the day was Roman Bardet and he was in the last of the podium places also. His teammate Jean Christophe Peraud was in sixth place, but post stage moved to fourth. It hasn’t always been clear who is leading the team, perhaps the plan was to see who could rise to the challenge across a three week grand tour. Peraud had been very unlucky last year with crashes and broken bones. His stated aim is to finish on the podium in Paris, but that is the goal of the younger rider too. The chances are that this particular story has a few more changes of direction in it yet, but Peraud is the stronger time trial rider and he could end up heading the two.

It’s perhaps less clear if there will be an AG2R rider on the podium. Bardet lost third place and the young riders jersey to FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot yesterday.The story of his descending travails have been repeated ad infinitum this year, but it was his climbing that did for Bardet yesterday. It would be interesting to know if Pinot’s motivation for attacking on the climb to Port des Bales yesterday was too gap Bardet or to build an advantage on the descent against riders (like Bardet) who are still stronger going downhill. Perhaps it was both? Outside of the Nibali / Valverde contest, it’s the battle for supremacy among the French riders that creates the most interest.

While the VCSE predictions have been pretty poor this year with neck stuck firmly out it’s got to be a Nibali win on Sunday. You have to suspect that Valverde will be happy with second and he has the teammates to protect his second place over the last of the mountain stages before his superior time trial ability will cement the position in place for Paris. Of the French riders it’s less clear. It seems likely that there will be a Frenchman on the podium in 2014,it’s just a question of who. There might yet be another reversal of fortune if Tejay Van Garderen can take back some time today and tomorrow, but that seems like a long shot. A repeat of his 2012 fifth place seems the best to hope for.

 Best of the Plan B’s

Tinkoff Saxo have given an indicator of just how strong they would have been in support of Alberto Contador with two stage wins since his withdrawal on stage 10. Mick Rogers win yesterday was proceeded by a victory for Rafal Majka on stage 14. Both of the wins have come from breaks, but the crucial thing is that the Tinkoff riders have beens strong enough to stay away. In contrast Sky have struggled to really be a factor since the demise of Froome and Porte. Garmin had Jack Bauer come within metres of a stage win on Sunday after another long break that had echoes of Tony Martin’s glorius failure at last years Vuelta.

AG2R lead the teams classement built on the platform of Bardet’s and Peraud’s high placings, but perhaps the team that’s managed a high profile through improvising results this year is Lotto. Andre Greipel has taken a stage win, but Tony Gallopin’s day in yellow was followed by the same rider taking a stage win. Another rider having a good Tour is Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff who now has two stage win’s under his belt from the lumpier stages. Marcel Kittel has struggled with the climbs, but will no doubt come good for the main event in Paris on Sunday. Greipel should be in second, but Kristoff is in the form of his life and may scramble to the next best title after Kittel.

The final week 

Two more stages in the Pyrenee’s including the iconic climbs of the Peyresourde, Tourmalet and Hautacam should provide some interesting viewing. Expect Europcar to get into the breaks as the team don’t have anything to show for the race so far in their first year on the world tour. VCSE predicts a breakaway win for both stages as Nibali will probably have his hands full covering Valverde. Movistar may yet go for it on the Hautacam stage tomorrow, but it feels more likely that Valverde will want to be conservative and protect his second place.

This years race has been full of surprises though and none the worse for it. It feels like it could only be misfortune that could rob Nibali of his first Tour de France win and that would make him one of a select band to have won all three grand tours. The excitement is likely to come from the French GC battle and the final day’s fireworks on the Champs Elysee.

Tour de France 2014 Rest Day Review

Another high profile withdrawl

The Tour de France’s organisers expected a lot from their visit to the Vosges region for this years race and that’s exactly what they got. What the peaks of the Vosges lack in outright height they made up for in drama as the peloton were taken over multiple climbs over the French holiday weekend. The weather that might have been expected in Yorkshire during the opening weekend was firmly entrenched and compounded the riders suffering. Racing for ten days straight including a stage over the Paris Roubaix cobbles had robbed this years edition of the Grand Boucle of two of it’s leading protagonists by the peloton’s first ‘day off’ and left Vicenzo Nibali in pole position.

No yellow in 2014 - Alberto Contador

No yellow in 2014 – Alberto Contador

The crash that led to Alberto Contador’s withdrawl during the Bastille Day’s stage 10 took place off camera, such was the fast moving nature of the day that saw the peloton ride into heavy rain as they began the days climbs. In the confusion it was initially suggested that Contador had suffered a catastrophic failure of his Tinkoff Saxo Specialized. The absence of pictures left viewers in the dark as to what had happened to the race favourite until the end of the stage where interviews provided some insight. In the information vacum that proceeded that everyone watching indulged in a little bout of conspiracy theory and speculation wondering if talk of not one, but two crashes was an attempt to paint the riders bike supplier in the best light. The facts, with the benefit of hindsight, are rather more prosaic but have the same tragic outcome for the rider. Contador slipped from the bars while riding downhill one handed with the result that he has suffered a likely season ending knee injury. It’s a testament to the rider and confirmation that road cycling is the worlds toughest sport that Contador actually road 20 kilometres with a fractured tibia before abandoning.

We’ll never know if different circumstances would have seen Contador take the fight to his GC rivals on stage 10. He had finished second on Saturday’s stage but was yet take much time back from Nibali. Nibali had relenquished the lead to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin on Sunday, seemingly relaxed enough that he would be able to take it back at will if the status quo was retained time wise with his key competitors. While the final climb (and first summit finish of the race) on Saturday wasn’t a long one, it was steep. Last years winner of Strade Bianche Blel Kadri took the stage and the essential French victory, the only member of the break to stay away. Contador looked the strongest of the GC taking second, but Nibali was with him wheel for wheel. Much as people are now touting Richie Porte as Nibali’s biggest competition in the aftermath of Contador’s exit, he still looks like he doesn’t have the legs. Ultimately if it is a battle between Porte and Nibali it may be decided by the relative strengths of their respective Sky and Astana teammates.

French riders resurgent

In addition to Kadri’s stage win France has strong representation in the top ten with Kadri’s AG2R teammates Roman Bardet & Jean Christophe Peraud, Gallopin and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot. While Gallopin and Peraud aren’t exactly veterans it’s more heartening to see the strong showing from Bardet and Pinot. Whether Pinot has got over all of his descending fears should become clear when the race enters the Alpes, but Bardet is looking like a strong contender for the young riders prize if not a podium place at this point.

The presence of French riders doing well also points to the likelihood that the sport is getting cleaner. While there remain some noises off about riders seeming to come into form unexpectedly the undercurrent is the emergence of some very talented young riders in the peloton across all disciplines. There was speculation from some quarters that Tony Martin, who won stage 9 from a breakaway on Sunday, would have been a possible GC rider during the last decade when doping was rife in the professional ranks. This was less a remark about Martin himself, than his physiology. In some ways Martin was the rider of the weekend as he was responsible for much of the animation on stage 10 too. The way that the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider hit the wall towards the end of the stage demonstrated what should happen when a 85 kilo rider hits a double digit ramp. It feels a lot better to celebrate the way his stage ended than having to watch in disbelief as a muscle bound rider climbed without appearing to breathe with any difficulty.

The Tour now enters its second half. The first has served up enoough drama for a three week race already, but such has been the ebb and flow of riders fortunes so far in this race can it be possible that the next 11 stages won’t be just as exciting.

 

Tour de France 2014 week 1 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Froome out, Nibali in yellow

The biggest story of the week had to be Chris Froome’s abandon on the ‘Paris Roubaix’ stage on Wednesday. Froome had crashed heavily the previous day as the Tour returned to home shores. Running at the front on what should have been a comparatively easy day for the GC contenders,  Froome touched a wheel and was down. The crash seemed fairly innocuous at the time; hardly anyone else was effected and Froome sprang up pretty quickly to get back on his bike. He spent a lot of time with the on course doctor however and there was speculation that he might have fractured his wrist. Although this was dispelled by the team following x-rays it was subsequently revealed on Friday long after his exit that he had in fact sustained two fractures (revealed by an MRI scan).

Can I win the Tour? - Vincenzo Nibali

Can I win the Tour? – Vincenzo Nibali

The chances are that Froome would have wanted to start the next day whether he was in acute pain or not. As much as he (and to be fair Sky) has lost support in some sections as a result of Bradley Wiggins non selection for this years race, Froome was undoubtably extremely motivated to defend his title. He had already shown his appetite by his performances during the opening two stages and the look on his face when he shook his head in response to the mechanic who asked if he could continue after his second crash on stage 5 spoke volumes. Sky pretty much admitted that they had their concerns about Froome when they committed some of the squad to protect Richie Porte, their ‘Plan B’, during the stage and the teams efforts looked divided from the moment that the erstwhile leader had his first crash of the day.

While a number of riders, both in and out of this years race, team managers and other interested observers opined that cobbles had no place on the Tour, the facts are that only one rider abandoned on stage 5; Froome. Sections of the Paris Roubaix course have been included in previous Tours but this stage had the misfortune to be run in pretty awful weather, unlike the last few years of the actual race that has enjoyed dry and sunny conditions in April. With the unexpectedly huge crowds that lined the route in the UK causing a few spills combined with the slippery nature of the weather effected stages since the race has returned to France this years Tour has had its fair share of abandons and retains quite a few walking (or should that be riding?) wounded.

While Chris Froome faltered Vincenzo Nibali has prospered. The Astana rider enjoyed almost the polar opposite of fortunes on stage 5 finishing 3rd on the stage and pulling out over a minutes lead on his nearest GC rival. The easy assumption when the route of this years Tour was announced was that the GC contenders would view stage 5 as one to be endured and hopefully completed without too many mishaps. There wasn’t a slew of articles trumpeting Nibali (or anyone else) as the GC rider most likely to do something on the stage. The cliche that Nibali is a ‘great descender’ is almost a bit of a joke these days, but like a number of riders in the peloton, he is an ex mountain biker and on that basis is less fazed by sketchy conditions. After springing a surprise to take stage 2 in Sheffield (what were the odds for that one?) it almost feels as if Nibali has taken advantage of the fact that no one really tapped him as a serious contender for this years race. His first win this year had been just a week before the Tour at the Italian nationals, but in seven stages of the Tour he has taken the Maillot Jaune, a stage win and a podium.

Contador’s confusion

The question of whether of not Nibali can hold onto the lead is not quite as clear writing this ahead of the first stage (8) that involves some serious climbing. Wrapping up the opening stages we suggested that Nibali could hold on to the jersey if he didn’t suffer any mishaps on stage 5 (done!). However, we further speculated whether Nibali’s stage 2 win was just a bit of opportunism, scraps from the table of the forthcoming Froome / Contador match up. The next three days in the Vosges should provide some if not all of the answers as to if this is a serious tilt at the GC by Nibali. He has looked good so far, but to win the race from stage 2, to hold the lead for that length of time, is something that hasn’t been done since 1961 with Jacques Anquetil.

Alberto Contador appears to be a man in confusion at the moment. He started the Tour with the strategy he had employed during the Dauphine; marking Froome. Now that Froome is absent, Contador seems bereft of ideas, thrown by the prospect of combating a rider with a completely different riding style. Contador had a torrid time of the cobbles too, losing nearly 3 minutes to Nibali. Although Contador has lost a key domestique (to concussion on stage 6) riders like Nico Roche and Mick Rogers are in great form and it’s going to be really interesting to see how the two teams Astana and Tinkoff Saxo and their respective team leaders trade punches over the next few days. When you examine the facts, Contador has enjoyed a fantastic year so far and Tinkoff look like a very well drilled outfit. Nibali and Astana in comparison have had a tough time and the team have been rife with bitching between the Italian and Kazakh components. The sense is that Contador needs to get his head right as Nibali may just have rediscovered his will to win.

Sagan consistent but winless

Quote of the day was from the rider missing from this years race who speculated if Peter Sagan was “..receiving instructions over his team radio or just Metallica at full blast”. Sagan has been there or there abouts on every stage so far and it’s pretty hard to see anyone else claiming the points jersey from him. A third win in this competition in as many years is obviously some achievement, but the stage win tally is falling. Missing out on the victory by inches yesterday hurt much more than the placings gained while sprinting against Marcel Kittel.  Sagan will continue to have a go, but he’s another rider who looks a little short on confidence at the moment despite the jersey he’s wearing.

Marcel Kittel enters every sprint stage knowing that they are his to lose. Mark Cavendish’s accident and subsequent abandonment of this years Tour has denied the Giant Shimano rider of his most potent competitor. VCSE’s view is the in the bare knuckle environment of the last kilometre of a bunch sprint Kittel currently is just about impossible to beat and for all the work Cavendish has done this year to counter the Kittel threat, he has been undone himself by riders that a year or two ago would have been in his wheel tracks.

Kittel can be beaten.  Andre Greipel won his obligatory stage win the day before yesterday after Kittel and his teammates had been exhausted by the cross winds that effected stage 6. Similarly Kittel wasn’t always a feature in last years race for the same reasons. For him though, he has already achieved the first part of the important Tour double; yellow after stage one. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that he will fail in his quest for the second; a consecutive victory on the Champs Elysee.

Tour de France 2014 – Fans eye view

After spoiling ourselves last year with two weeks in France and four stages the assumption was that this years live and direct interaction with the Grand Boucle  would feel like something of an anti-climax. This year has also been a bit of let down in terms of miles on the bike for various reasons, but a recent window of opportunity meant that VCSE would be joining some regular riding buddies and heading out to catch a glimpse of Monday’s stage from Cambridge to London.

Who knew a flat straight road could be this interesting? - Tour de France 2014

Who knew a flat straight road could be this interesting? – Tour de France 2014

Your correspondent had been minded to pour a fair amount of cold water on the expectations when plans were being laid to go and see the peloton as it rode through Essex. The parcour was (relatively speaking) pan flat, the riders would flash past in a blur and it might feel like something of a let down for those that were used to 360 degree television coverage. Then we bemoaned the health and safety culture of the UK that would mean that roads would be closed at 6.00am, far earlier than in France.

Even after seeing the huge turnout in Yorkshire for the Grand Depart VCSE was sceptical that there would be that many stood at the side of the road save for the very local population and die-hard cyclsts and fans. Of course we didn’t need to leave before 9.00 to get a good spot. VCSE’s biggest fear was would there be any food served at the pub near where we were due to watch the race.

Threading our way through the back lanes from Southend to the outskirts of Chelmsford we encountered other riders, sometimes singularly or in pairs or bigger groups. The only indication that something was happening as we reached the road the stage would pass over was a few cars parked on the raised verge and then (suddenly) there was the Road Closed sign and the inevitable flourescent tabard wearing stewards. Just as suddenly it was clear that the Tour was capturing the imagination in Essex as much as it had in Yorkshire at the weekend. In either direction both sides of the road was sown with spectators. In the time-honoured tradition of stoically waiting for something to happen (otherwise known as queuing) were small groups of fans with picnics and fold up chairs. The occupants of one house had brought the furniture from the conservatory to the roadside to watch proceedings in comfort.

Ahead of the race VCSE had spoken to people who were booked up for some homespun hospitality experience in pubs that enjoyed a position alongside the route. The pub near our chosen vantage point had a mixture of corporate guests whose VIP experience may have been slightly marred by the fact that they were on the direct route to the gents toilet and had to endure a steady precession of MAMIL’s walking in and out. There was a three deep crush at the bar and a roaring trade in bacon rolls for those of us who were managing with more prosaic catering. By the time we were fed, watered and were done with interrupting the corporate guests the pavements had filled further with more and more walk and ride ups. Overheard conversations revealed that this wasn’t an exclusively Essex crowd, just as last years stage finish in Montpellier had been leavened with a fair few Brits who had made their way inland from the beaches of the south of France. There were a couple of Danish fans and a surprising number from Australia. On the opposite side of the road was a group entirely decked out on orange polo shirts who had obviously been there for a while based on the car that was yielding a steady supply of food and drink. Belkin fans? Apparently no, according to the disappointed Dutchman who had wandered down to engage them in conversation.

Conversation turned to where the race had reached so far, before we realised that it hadn’t even left Cambridge yet. There had been a reasonably steady flow of official cars coming through and in an increase in volume signified the arrival of the promo caravan. After our experience last year VCSE anticipated the possibility of adding to our collection of hats and key rings, although this was leavened with the likelihood that the caravan would be moving a bit quicker on Essex A roads than the 300 metre mark on a stage finish. This was confirmed as the caravan started to come past; the four point safety harnesses that the ‘Tat Chuckers’ wear looked absolutely essential as the cars weaved around at 50 mph. For all the marketing advantages of a float shaped like an oversized Fruit Shoot bottle these things are not designed to corner. As the drivers kept their palms permanently on the horn we were ‘treated’ to the odd trinket thrown to us. French betting chain PMU (sponsors of the points competition) clearly felt that there was zero benefit from promoting their brand in England and the caravan felt a bit threadbare and Anglicised as a result. Oven chip purveyors McCain’s got a big cheer (this was the case in Yorkshire too apparently) as they climbed towards us. What looked like a matchbook turned out to be herb seeds and VCSE supposes there wasn’t much point in tossing us potato seeds if you want us to buy more frozen chips. The scarcity of freebies had everyone that cared scrabbling for the few crumbs that were thrown, but anyone who had expected a typical Tour de France tat fest would have felt a little disappointed.

And so we waited for the main event. Tour Tracker gave up just past Saffron Walden so we were reduced to speculation on the arrival of the peloton that ranged from the well-informed (“..about 2.13pm”) to the ‘haven’t a clue’ (“Wiggins is in the lead and just outside Chelmsford”). The VCSE predictions of stage 3 being the least supported stage had been thoroughly rubbished as fans began to spill off the kerbs and into the road. As the Tour outriders began to come through pint clutching spectators casually leaned back a bit to allow them to pass. Everything was good natured though, the British Police motorcyclists were too busy high fiving anyone that stuck a hand out to have one. The Gendarmes took a somewhat different view, perhaps with a sense that it wasn’t a case of if an accident with a spectator would happen but when.

The arrival overhead of the helicopters heralded the approach of the break. The two riders who had been away from pretty much kilometre one (and weren’t all that far from the end of the stage when the ‘catch’ took place) must have felt a bit nonplussed to be riding through crowds on a stage that (if held in some boggo department in France) would attract the occasional glance from a farmer in his field. Not so much your ’15 minutes of fame’, but your 150km’s perhaps?

That the peloton came through our vantage point in a little more than two minutes if you include the team cars probably isn’t the point. We had got a taste of what it feels like to be part of something that happens rarely, if not once in a lifetime with the Olympics in 2012. There was a sense that all of us would be able to remember when the 2014 Tour de France came through Essex on its way to London and say “I was there”. Some of us will no doubt get our next taste of fan participation somewhere in France next time, but that was planned. Maybe a few more, now that they have had a taste, will be inspired to join us over there. The unscientific vox pop that took place in the immediate aftermath hinted that those who had experienced a bike race up close and personal for the first time wanted to do it again and it does look like the success of this years Grand Depart will lead to a swifter return to these shores than the eight years that preceded this UK visit. This could also see more towns and regions seeking involvement in the Tour of Britain and while we bathe in the afterglow of the Yorkshire Grand Depart it’s possible to imagine the ToB extending to ten days or maybe even two weeks. Those of us that follow the sport week in week out were disappointed that there were less Brit riders starting this Tour than in 1968 and casual fans alike rue the non-appearance of Bradley Wiggins and the early exit of Mark Cavendish. And yet the spectacle hasn’t suffered, because in so many ways the spectacle has been the crowds. Whatever the outcome in the race itself it felt good to be a (very small) part of it yesterday.

Tour de France 2014 Grand Depart

Stages 1 & 2 – Leeds to Harrogate & York to Sheffield

Long before their son Marcel was a glint in Herr and Frau Kittel’s eye another German from different time said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. If the script (if not the plan) had been followed yesterday we would have seen Mark Cavendish claim his first ever maillot jaune on the finishing straight in Harrogate on stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France. Instead his Omega Pharma Quick Step team are trying to come up with a plan B for the riders left in their squad after Cavendish withdrew from the race ahead of today’s stage as a result of the injury he suffered in the final moments of yesterdays sprint.

Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 - TdF 2014

Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 – TdF 2014

Everything had been going so well up until then. If there was one thing that couldn’t be guaranteed for the second grand tour opening weekend to take place in the British Isles in 2014 it would be the weather. There was much at stake to show that Yorkshire was going to prove to be the right choice for the opening stages of this years race. The greatest risk came from the possibility that the dales and moorland that much of the race would be run over during the weekend could be shrouded in mist and rain if we were ‘enjoying’ typical British weather conditions. This years Giro d’Italia ‘Big Start’ in Ireland was beset with wet conditions pretty much from start to finish and while this didn’t dampen the enthusiasm it did impact on the spectacle. It was extremely fortunate that any rain that was forecast had pretty much disappeared by the time stage 1 got underway yesterday.

The crowds that gathered ahead of the start in Leeds for the signing on ceremony where the shape of things to come and both stages have been characterised by huge crowds wherever there was a climb, town or village for the Peloton to pass through or over. And these weren’t just crowds or two, three or even four deep at the roadside. Any vantage point or bank that afforded a view over the heads at the side of the route was packed out with fans. Sure, many of them would have been asking their neighbour “Where’s Wiggo?” but that wasn’t the point, Yorkshire had turned out for their very own version of a grand day out. The waves of people that crowded onto the parts of the stage that went up, particularly the few categorised climbs were incredible, an almost perfect copy of an Alpe d’Huez or Angliru but with a British twist. There were few of the fancy dress runners sprinting alongside the riders yesterday, the way through the crowd was narrow but not bad tempered as it had been in the Giro earlier in the year.

If the Yorkshire Grand Depart is going to be judged a success for one reason it should be for the sheer number of people who felt engaged to come and stand by the road and watch the race go by. Will it encourage more cyclists? Will it inspire a young boy or girl to become a racer? Who knows. What is clear is that there’s an appetite to watch road racing on British roads at the highest level and if it makes it easier to stage races on closed roads in the UK that can only be a good thing.

As far as the actual racing goes, yesterdays stage might have seemed a little dull if it had been held during the middle of the race in a dull French department. The three man break that went off the front pretty much from the get go yesterday contained the oldest man in the race Jens Voigt. As far as breakaways go Jens is the perfect rider and in this situation he was a gift for the commentators as they can get maximum mileage out his catchphrase, career longevity and the fact this is his retirement year. It might have been a harder race to call if the other two riders in the break, two Frenchman who’s names escape me, had made it stick and Jens had slipped back into the clutches of the peloton. As it went the Trek rider stayed away long enough to claim the KOM jersey as well as the most aggressive rider award.

There was almost another surprise in store from Trek as the peloton tackled the final drag uphill in Harrogate. Fabian Cancellara broke away on the right hand side of the road as OPQS led the bunch on the left. If Cavendish’s team had thought they could impose some discipline on the opposition in the final kilometres, Cancellara’s attack that was followed quickly by one from Cofidis exposed them. By now Kittel’s Giant Shimano train was moving their rider to the front and Cavendish was losing momentum as the sprinters got tangled with some of the one day specialists like Orica’s Simon Gerrans and Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. As Cavendish tried to get onto a wheel he butted heads with Gerrans. Gerrans moved left but was blocked by Europcar sprinter Bryan Coquard who sent Gerrans back into Cavendish’s path. In a moment both riders were down, Cavendish heavily and the perfect start that most of the fans had wanted was denied.

The heart would have wanted a Cavendish win. Christian Prudhomme probably wished for one too; he’s given him two bites at this particular cherry now. The head said Kittel though* and it seems likely that he would have claimed a second opening day win and another over Cavendish even without the accident. The 2014 Tour had got off to a fairytale start but it had, for one rider anyway, had a nightmare finish.

Mark Cavendish never looked likely to start stage 2 and despite the combined cross fingers of the OPQS squad he announced his withdrawal from the Tour, further depleting the already meagre British rider pool at this years race. The stage promised much, seven categorised climbs including one with just 5km to go as the race came through the back streets of Sheffield.

There was a bigger break today and one or two might have fancied their chances of staying away, but in the end the catch was made and we began to anticipate a Peter Sagan victory. The preceding climbs along with some ill timed mechanicals had taken their toll and there were one or two riders who lost time on the day, Richie Porte’s miserable 2014 continued as he fell behind after a crash. But it was the final climb up the Jenkin Road in Sheffield where the stage came alive. The GC contenders had decided that the best place to be was at the head of the race and Alberto Contador was the first to show his wheel at the head of the bunch. If Chris Froome spends his time looking at his stem, Contador only has eyes for Froome and he may come to regret climbing with his head twisted around to look at the Sky rider. Froome looked in trouble on Jenkin Road, not anything serious but another example of how he can suffer on a double digit gradient.

As the ‘summit’ was reached Froome steadied and attacked. This time it was Contador who was caught, seemingly unable to respond and it was the Sky rider who might have achieved the victory in today’s GC mindgames. This wasn’t the end though. If the script was going to be followed now was the time for Sagan to strike out for home. As AG2R’s Peraud made a bid for victory, Sagan stayed back, allowing the potentially dangerous Greg van Avermaet to go clear.

No one expected Vincenzo Nibali to spring an attack though; script torn up! With hindsight VCSE was reminded of Niki Terpstra riding away from the bunch at this years Paris Roubaix, everyone else looked at one another and by then it was too late. So Nibali goes into yellow and barring (literally) accidents on stage 5 he could hold onto it for at least the next week. Whether or not the Astana team leader has the legs to contend for the GC for three weeks is another thing entirely however. It remains to be seen whether this was Nibali taking an opportunistic win to set up a tilt at the race or was he just claiming the scraps that he feels he must go for from the the Froome Contadaor battle to come.

The opening stages of this years Tour have deviated from the predicted outcomes and have been all the better for it. Whether or not the rest of the race continues to be unpredictable remains to be seen, but it would be impossible to argue that Yorkshire hasn’t delivered as promised the greatest of Grand Departs.

See the VCSE 2014 TdF Preview