Is that the US live feed i’m watching? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #41

Milan San Remo 2015 

If ever there’s a race to follow a script, at least as far as when something actually happens it’s got to be Milan San Remo. Every year there’s a rumour of, if not an actual route change to be implemented with the intention of making the race easier / harder for sprinters / climbers. And if the parcours is changed you can be pretty much certain that it won’t make the slightest difference and it will be fine to go to the garden centre (it’s a UK thing) or have dinner with the family and tune in when the race reaches the Cipressa.

And so it goes that the 2015 variety of MSR followed the script pretty much to the letter. Sure the key incidents were specific to this years edition but we could have easily foregone an hour or so of super slow motion rain jacket removal or watching riders going through the musettes.

OK, so if you had tuned in with 25km to go you would have missed the crash on a wet descent that took out one of the Sky team and allowed Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift to go clear of the peloton. They mopped up the last of the break but were caught by some determined chasers including Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar as they climbed the Cipressa. Sky were ostensibly working for Swift, but it’s hard to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have had the green light to go for the win too. It was the Welshman who launched the last forlorn attack of the day on the Poggio with van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss for company. With those two caught on the descent it was down to a sprinters selection to contest the win on the Via Roma (the 2015 route change natch).

There were some choice names here too; last years winner and arguably race favourite Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Bling Matthews and Paris Nice stage winner Davide Cimolai. I signed off my last post with the prediction that Sagz wouldn’t do anything in MSR and so it proved; fourth place is not what Oleg Tinkoff expects (more of which later). My money was on Kristoff after he got back into the leading group with the help of the smartest guy in the peloton Luca Paolini. But who surfed the wheels from way back to deny them all? John Degenkolb, the Mr Versatile of the sprinters (this is the guy who finished on the podium at Paris Roubaix last year). OK, he was hardly long odds for MSR but I don’t remember him winning from so far back before. It’s a great win and should give Degenkolb equal billing at Giant alongside Marcel Kittel now (if he didn’t have it already).

I wonder if the result doesn’t have implications for another Giant rider. Warren Barguil has struggled since his breakthrough stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta. His situation reminds me a little of Mark Cavendish’s short stay at Sky, albeit they’re different types of rider. If Barguil is going to develop as a stage racer and certainly a grand tour rider it’s hard to see how he can do this at Giant, which is a team that is to all intents and purposes predicated as a sprint outfit. Much as I think Giant would want to keep him I can’t help wondering if Barguil would do better elsewhere. Dave Brailsford has talked about winning the Tour with a French rider, might Barguil fit the Sky mould?

Since Ben Swift claimed the final podium spot in last years MSR he’s been touted as a classics rider. When the Sky threesome went clear I thought he had a great opportunity to win the race solo if he could have used Rowe and then Thomas to leap frog over the final two climbs. This would have relied on the rest of the peloton to wave the metaphorical white flag perhaps, but it looked like Swift didn’t really have the legs in the sprint either. Classics wise Sky are now in worse position than they were a year ago. Ian Stannard may have repeated his Het Nieuwsblad win from 12 months ago but the teams MSR result is disappointing in comparison. Sky really need a result in the Ronde or Roubaix to show that they have taken a step forward in one day racing.

Volta Catalunya 2015 

I could have been forgiven for thinking I had tuned in to one of the US races so bad was the television feed from the Volta Catalunya (they seem to have dropped the ‘a’ in 2015) this week. The weather hasn’t been all that but we lost an entire ‘live’ broadcast yesterday (stage 2). There was a silver lining in that I didn’t have to see an Alejandro Valverde stage win though.

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador

It’s been quite a fun race so far. The peloton completely messed up the time gaps to the three man break on stage 1 allowing CCC rider Maciej Paterski to take the win and the best part of a 3 min lead on GC. It was as you were GC wise after stage 2 and then the big hitters started to emerge today on stage 3.

Chris Froome has returned to racing after missing Tirreno Adriatico through illness and based on today’s performance he’s still not quite there. Froome had only Richie Porte left for support on the final climb as Tinkoff took advantage of several crashes on the descent of the penultimate climb to do some damage to the peloton. Bjaarne Riis has been suspended from Tinkoff for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (there’s a good article about that here) although Sagan’s result in MSR has been suggested as the catalyst. Alberto Contador looked in good shape today, almost back to his stage win earlier this season in the  Ruta del Sol as far I was concerned.

The Contador group that led into Girona included Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Garmin Cannondale pair Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. While Contador seemed most concerned with Porte taking his turn on the front (Aru and Uran knew their place and rode when they were told to), no one seemed to be taking much notice of AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. He attacked as the group reached the outskirts of town and by the time anyone had decided to respond it was already to late and Pozzovivo had a relatively easy win after a preceding hard 155 kms.

Paterski relinquished his race lead to Pierre Rolland who may well lose the leaders jersey in turn tomorrow on the queen stage to La Molina tomorrow. The big names are around 2.20 back on Rolland and Froome isn’t so far away another 20 seconds or so behind. If he can come back the way he did after Contador took his (Ruta del Sol) stage win earlier this year with one of his own at the same event, the GC could be Froome’s for the taking. There are plenty of other names in the mix though and tomorrow’s stage is likely to be a good one. Let’s hope they sort out the TV pictures.

Going around in CIRC’les – VCSE’s Racing Digest #40

Paris Nice 2015

I normally enjoy both of the week long early season stage races but a number of distractions over the last couple of weeks kept me from seeing much in the way of live racing. Fortunately, Eurosport gives me plenty of opportunities to catch up via their highlights programme. Out of the two races I think the one that provided the most interest was Paris Nice, particularly after Chris Froome’s late pull out from Tirreno denied us the next instalment of his match up with Alberto Contador. Paris Nice 2015 returned to its traditional format with an opening prologue and finishing with the Col d’Eze TT. And in a repeat of the last time the race followed this format in 2013 Richie Porte took his second overall win and stage victories on the only summit finish and the Col d’Eze.

Other than going down briefly, descending in poor conditions on the penultimate stage Porte looked like the real deal when it mattered without actually holding the race lead until he finished on Sunday. The holder of the yellow jersey for much of the race was world champion Michael Kwiatowski, the winner of the prologue and well looked after by his Etixx teammates through much of the early stages. Kwiatowski, who is the Polish TT champion was only a second down on Porte going into the last stage but he couldn’t match Porte’s pace in the TT.

If we base things purely on this outcome Porte looks ready to challenge for the GC in this year’s Giro and barring accidents he shouldn’t have his ambitions to lead a team in grand tour overturned by Sky’s need to protect Chris Froome in the Tour (as happened in 2013). If early season form is anything to go by Sky look in fantastic shape grand tour wise with real strength in depth and enough talent to potentially challenge in the Giro and Tour. For Kwiatowski, things don’t look quite so clear GC wise. Tony Martin showed that the massive pulls he put in during last years Tour were not a one off, but he’s really not the kind of climbing domestique that Kwiatowski will need to protect him in a three week grand tour. Of course, none of this could be part of the plan for Etixx although I suspect that the team will look for a decent showing if they’re unable to land one of the monuments in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere it was honours even in the battle to be the best French sprinter with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare finishing ahead of each other twice in the bunch finishes. Neither managed a win (a second place apiece) with Bouhanni edging Demare with his placings. Bouhanni needs to win to add weight to his claims that he should have been the supported rider at FDJ last year. Demare as the rider who stayed has to justify his team’s decision to back him ahead of the other rider. Of course it’s still early days, but I don’t expect either rider to kick on in 2015 in the same way as Elia Viviani say.

The winner of Saturday’s stage into Nice was Lotto rider Tony Gallopin. While the French rider probably didn’t have the time trialling chops to protect a lead of less than a minute from Porte up the Col d’Eze he did show that last years performance during the Tour in the Vosges wasn’t a one off. For a team that’s likely to feed off scraps in 2015 it’s likely that Gallopin will be one of the big hopes to deliver a breakaway win.

Tirreno Adriatico 2015

Tirreno was the lesser of the two races for me this year. I enjoyed Wout Poels breakaway win on stage 5. I think he’s a great signing for Sky and the teams line up for the Volta Catalunya this week suggests that Poels will be one of Chris Froome’s key supporters at the Tour. As Poels took the race lead as well as the stage win on Saturday I found myself wondering if he could actually go for the win. All of this daydreaming was proved to be just that within 24 hours as Nairo Quintana delivered the kind of emphatic win that characterised his Giro win last year. The weather was pretty Giro like as well with the last few km’s ridden in blizzard conditions. Quintana obviously didn’t feel the cold and he looked about as happy and animated as I have ever seen him winning by 41 seconds and taking the race lead. Vincenzo Nibali, in comparison, looked like he was having a horrible time and would rather be anywhere else than the race he won as recently as 2013. Another rider who enjoyed a less than stellar Tirreno was Alberto Contador. Lack of form or lack of Froome. Who knows? For the other two grand tour winners of 2014 it was a week to forget.

After I semi wrote him off in my last post Peter Sagan took the final bunch sprint in pouring rain on Monday. Actually, I was reflecting on the increased pressure Sagan is under to deliver a big win to justify is multi-million Euro contract at Tinkoff Saxo but the win will restore some confidence to the rider. Other commentators who can draw on better connections with the team are suggesting that Sagan is bullish about his chances of landing a monument in 2015, but I’m still not convinced that it will happen this Spring. I’ll predict here that Sagan’s best showing in the monuments in 2015 (other than placing in Milan San Remo) will be later in the year in the Giro d’Lombardia.

It was good to see MTN Quhbeka get a result with Steve Cummings finishing just behind Contador with 6th place on GC. MTN have retained the services of Brian Smith in 2015 and he’s signed some big(ish) names for the African team. I’m not entirely sure how all of these riders are going to gel and even less clear on how they intend to win. Gerard Ciolek’s breakout win for the team in the 2013 edition of MSR put them firmly on the world stage and if nothing else the profile has been further raised by Smith’s signings for 2015. Invites to the grand tours have followed, but unlike 2009 where Smith also had a hand in the launch of the Cervelo Test Team these riders don’t look like they will deliver a repeat of Ciolek’s monument. I think there are too many sprinters and these aren’t riders who have been winning regularly either. I would really like to see MTN go well as I like a lot of the personalities involved in the team but I think they will be living off scraps in 2015 too. They do have the best looking bikes in the peleton though!

CIRC report

Paris Nice in particular started with the release of the CIRC report looming in the background. The headline pulled from the 200 plus page document was the “..90% of the peloton are doping” and this made most newspapers, radio and TV reports. If this claim is to be believed it’s not great news for the sport. As I have commented previously the challenge for the sport is to provide stories that will attract sponsors into the sport. We have seen new team sponsors this year and there’s a real resurgence in interest in countries like Germany who pretty much abandoned coverage after the doping scandals of the late 2000’s. The situation remains fragile though and how riders, teams and the UCI deal with the fallout from CIRC will be incredibly important for the sport to grow.

Taking women’s cycling as an example. The UCI have delivered some improvements to the race schedule and there seems to be an appetite to show more of the women’s races in 2015. Achieving parity with the men is not helped by negative stories coming from the men’s peloton. Like it or not, women’s cycling will continue to rely on the trickle down of investment and interest in the men’s for the next year or two. It goes without saying that potential investment lost to world tour and pro conti teams will impact on the women’s peloton too. Not least the suggestion that (at least) each world tour team should run a ladies team with a full race programme as well.

The 90% comment was polarizing as so much of the quotes in the report were unattributed. While riders (past and present) subsequently revealed that they had spoken to the CIRC committee, Chris Froome was the only current rider that allowed his name to go into the published document. Thankfully, Froome wasn’t made the lightning rod as a result of his preparedness to put his name to the report. I have been critical of Sky’s use of TUE’s (one of the major examples given in the report of where there is huge potential for abuse) and I though it was interesting that Froome withdrew from Tirreno this year citing a chest infection. Would this have happened 12 months ago? As I say, whatever people might think of Froome and / or Sky I thought he deserved some credit for putting his name to the report.

Of course, there were many conflicting views as to whether or not the report had gone far enough in both revealing and / or confirming some of the doping stories surrounding the sport and what should be done to improve the situation. My own take is that the report didn’t reveal much that was new and perhaps that was why the recommendations had a lightweight feel. Credit to Brian Cookson for commissioning the report as I couldn’t imagine this happening previously at the UCI. That in itself is progress.

There are some commentators who believe that anyone connected to doping in the past should be unable to take part in the sport. While I understand the view I take a more pragmatic approach that recognises that it would be pretty much impossible to unpick cycling apart in such away. I think there remains an opportunity to provide riders and staff past and present with the platform to ‘fess up, even if this would be a somewhat flawed process. Say, rider A a current member of the peloton comes forward and admits doping previously. Where is the statute of limitations that says that the rider should be banned now for something they did previously, one year ago? Two? Of course this is where the ‘ban them all’ approach seems appealing, but my gut feel is that it’s likely that in the not too recent past 90% of the peloton were doping. I don’t think that the sport would survive the loss of so many riders. That doesn’t excuse the offence or mean that I think that everyone who doped previously should be given a hall pass. i just think that the approach and solution as far as doping catharsis is concerned is a lot more nuanced.

A final CIRC related thought. Brian Cookson (and others) have come out strongly against Lance Armstrong taking part in Geoff Thomas’ cancer charity ride that will take place ahead of this years Tour. Thomas, an ex professional footballer is another cancer survivor and I was pleased to see him taking a stand in favour of Armstrong’s continued involvement. I have no issue with the sanctions that Armstrong faces as a cyclist, even extending to his wish to participate in Ironman’s. However, I cannot see how anyone can deny Armstrong’s cancer. Thomas discusses Armstrong’s presence as a part of his rehabilitation in the cancer community. While the vehicle in this case is a bike I think the decision to involve Armstrong or not belongs with Thomas and the charity he is raising money for. Some people may see this as yet another example of Armstrong’s cynicism but i’m prepared to take his professed motivation at face value on this one.

The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Strade Bianche

Once upon a time. A time when for English footballs top division the prospect of being paid £5.8 billion to play televised football would have seemed like science fiction. As the 1970’s turned into the 1980’s and punk rock became the new wave, the big news in football was the £1 million pound transfer fee.

The best manager never to manage England’s national team Brian Clough had ushered in the development with his signing of Birmingham striker Trevor Francis for his Nottingham Forest side. Francis earned his fee and Forest recouped their investment when they won the European Cup (now the Champions League) in 1979 with the player scoring the winning goal in the final against Swedish side Malmo.

The precedent set, more clubs began targeting the players they believed would justify a £1M fee. Francis winning the European Cup at Nottingham had removed doubts about the wisdom of such indulgence. However, as the players that followed Francis into the million pound ‘club’ made their debuts it became clear to the sides involved that paying the entry fee was no guarantee of quality. Clough found this out for himself when he set another million pound benchmark with the first £1M black player Justin Fashanu.

Fashanu earned his fame and his move to Forest pretty much on the strength of one goal. Playing against Liverpool, Fashanu received the ball with his back to and 25 yards from goal. He flicked the ball as he turned and struck it with his left while it was still in the air. The strike; “magnificent” in the words of the commentator was the goal of the season, literally and figuratively and at the end of 1980 Fashanu was on his way to Clough’s Nottingham Ironically replacing Francis who was on the move again. Unfortunately for Clough and Forest, Francis’ replacement never found his form weighed down by an inability to reproduce that goal as well as (unreported at the time) off the field issues.

I was reminded of the mixed fortunes of these two (and other) million pound players in the early 80’s as Peter Sagan disappeared from view during Saturday’s Strada Bianche. Sagan has moved to Tinkoff Saxo for a rumoured 5M Euro a year and as I have written already this year his team owner expects results. Specifically, Sagan needs to win his first monument in 2015. Racing for the erstwhile Cannondale team in previous years Sagan, a seemingly perpetual winner of his national championship wore a subtly altered version of the team sponsors jersey. With his move to Tinkoff, the Slovakian red, white and blue is firmly in evidence and this allowed race commentator Rob Hatch to reveal a worrying factoid for the rider. The last race that Sagan had won was his national championship 10 months previously.

The use of italics is important. Also in the leading group on Saturday was Etixx rider and former world cyclocross champ Zdenek Stybar. Stybar, injured for much of last year is the current Czech national champion. The Czech and Slovak national champs, perhaps not so surprising for two countries that used to be just one are held jointly and Stybar won the race from Sagan in 2014. Sagan was able to claim his national champs jersey by virtue of being the first Slovakian rider to cross the line.

In addition to his striking new ensemble Sagan appears to have spent the off season cultivating a hairstyle that looks suspiciously like a mullet. Perhaps Oleg Tinkoff wants to appeal to the resurgent interest in cycling in Germany, although one look at Marcel Kittel should tell him that the quiff is where it’s at these days.

Back to the racing and at pretty much the same point in the race where Sagan and last years winner Michael Kwiatowski had made the decisive break, this years selection occurred. With Stybar were Sep Vanmarcke, Greg van Avermaet and 2014 podium finisher Alejandro Valverde. Sagan came adrift, appeared to be getting back on and then as the camera concentrated on the front of the race was lost from view altogether. Whether or not the director made much of an effort to find a shot of him, Sagan wasn’t seen on screen again.

I could easily look foolish here if Sagan wins the Ronde in few weeks and this was just one race, but is it possible that he’s feeling the pressure to deliver? Sagan’s form in Strade Bianche in the last two years was certainly stronger; he wasn’t out gunned by Kwiatowski (the superior climber) until the last kilometre in 2014. I think the key to unlocking Sagan’s undoubted potential will be how well Tinkoff Saxo can build a team of riders around him this Spring. Although the team have tasted success in the classics in the past (with Cancellara) the focus has been on the grand tours in the last year or two. The team don’t have that long to find the right grouping to put with their big winter signing if he’s going to get a monument in 2015.

With Sagan’s disappearance my biggest worry was that Valverde might go two better than 2014 and win. Vanmarcke had come unstuck from the leaders as the race went over a couple of steep climbs in the final few km’s. After the terrible clash of their bike sponsor’s (Bianchi) celeste blue with team sponsor’s Belkin’s lime green last year you would have hoped that another sponsor change for 2015 could improve things. Unfortunately, the yellow and black of Lotto Jumbo isn’t doing anything for the pairing with celeste either. I can see myself needing to return to the subject of team kits at some point this season as the pro conti teams have suddenly become the cool kids while the world tour serve up variations on a black theme.

In 2014 we had two riders going for the win up the hill and through the city walls of Sienna. This year there were three and with steep finish it was hard to see past Valverde. Greg van Avermaet realising this attacked and stole a few bike lengths on Stybar as Valverde couldn’t respond (huzzah). It was too soon for van Avermaet though as Stybar overhauled him over the as the road levelled out. With nothing left in the tank van Avermaet sank resignedly into his saddle as Stybar found a bit of a sprint for the win.

Continue reading The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

Etixx have (another) day to forget

Het Niewsblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne represent the start of the season proper for me. Races take place in conditions that I can recognise from my own rides and it the Flandrian landscape doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the windswept Essex roads that I do the majority of my miles on. I’m not sure of the exact reason(s) why OHN isn’t easier to catch on something other than a streaming site, but I guess money must have something to do with it. Having said that if Eurosport can manage to show the GP Samyn why can’t they get the Sporza feed for OHN? Particularly as they use the same channels pictures for the following day for KBK.

Le Samyn took place today and Etixx Quick Step had another ‘mare. With the kind of representation in the leading group that other teams would dream of and Gianni Meersman last wheel in the sprint train you’re thinking ‘win’ right? Um.. well.. apparently not. Lotto Soudal (nee Belisol) rider Kris Boeckmans went early and Meersman ended up second.  Lotto didn’t exactly set things on fire at the weekend, so the win was probably as significant for them as the (ahem) misfiring Etixx boys losing out. Ok, so this isn’t a race that will make or break their season, but Eitixx have to be wondering how they can turn numerical advantage in the last three races into only one victory.

Just the one (1 day) race in Italy this weekend then..

I’m looking forward to Strade Bianche on Saturday. Wouldn’t it be great if it rains? Of course the weather isn’t something that RCS can arrange and if the race is run in the same conditions as last year it shouldn’t spoil the fun. Last years edition featured Peter Sagan having one of those days that Etixx seem to be having currently. Ironically it was an Etixx rider that beat him twelve months ago; Michael Kwiatowski. While last years winner will be absent from this years edition (he’s at Paris Nice), the runner up is riding. Sagan will race on Saturday before turning his attention to Tirreno Adriatico the following week. This will be my first sight of Sagan since his move to Tinkoff. I wonder how Sagan will go this year. The massive contract must be nice but how long will it take Oleg to take to Twitter if he feels that he isn’t getting the return he thinks his investment justifies?

There’s plenty of other interest in the list of provisional starters. Simon Gerrans is fit again and this is the kind of race that should suit him. Cannondale Garmin are bringing 2013 winner Moreno Moser who hasn’t done anything since to be honest, so I guess I mention it as an example of talent that’s (currently) unfulfilled. One rider who I think could go really well on Saturday if he’s allowed to is Sky’s Peter Kennaugh. Sky have a pretty mixed up squad of classics and grand tour riders so it’s not clear to me what the Sky game plan could be.

What’s disappointing about this weekend is that Strade Bianche won’t be bookending things with Roma Maxima. The previous two editions of what was a revival race meeting had produced something really decent to watch and it’s a shame that the race has been pulled. It’s another example of the precarious nature of the sport that an event that looked to have been well supported locally and enjoyable to follow on TV has disappeared from this years calendar.

Every cloud though; at least Alejandro Valverde won’t be able to defend his title!

Continue reading Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

Spring classics opening weekend

After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.

The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.

Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.

Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.

Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*

Continue reading A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

2015 Desert races – Dubai & Oman

Mark Cavendish doesn’t have a lot of time for armchair cycling commentators and even assuming that the Etixx Quick Step sprinter had stumbled upon this I don’t think it was just me that Cav was trying to prove a point to in Dubai at the start of this month. Cavendish took two stage wins and the overall GC in what was always likely to be another sprint fest on the Arabian Peninsula. Of course the win here won’t (read hasn’t) silenced the speculation over whether or not he can reclaim the throne from Marcel Kittel or, perhaps more importantly, earn another lucrative contract with his team. Even Patrick Lefevere is suggesting that Cavendish needs results if he wants to be re-signed by the erstwhile OPQS squad. Of course Kittel was absent from Dubai this year, so all bets are currently off over who has come into the season in better form, the key showdown likely to come at the Tour. However Lefevere indicated that Cavendish needed to perform in the early season races like this weekend’s Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and the first monument of 2015; Milan San Remo. The Belgian squad can’t change its spots as far as wins in the classics being the priority despite the investment in GC riders like Uran and emergence of Kwiatowski (admittedly no slouch in the one day races either). The impression I get is that a repeat of Cavendish’s 2009 MSR victory will be enough to ensure his continued employment with the potential size of his contract dictated by continuing that form into the summer.

A winner in 2015 - Mark Cavendish
A winner in 2015 – Mark Cavendish

One of the riders that Cavendish will need to beat in MSR is Kittel’s teammate John Degenkolb. The Giant sprinter was the main threat to Cavendish on GC in Dubai and while the Manxman impressed with his 17th place on the one stage that offered an opportunity for the climbers, Degenkolb showed his versatility by scaling the steep sides of the Hatta Dam faster than Alejandro Valverde to take victory and briefly hold the overall lead. Giant have an abundance of sprinters, but it’s to their advantage that each of them bring something different to the party. Degenkolb can do the out and out bunch sprinter thing, even if he isn’t quite at the level of Kittel or Cavendish for outright speed. He’s emerging as a rider who is potentially more valuable in terms of world tour points however as he will be in the mix on (more than just) a pan flat sprinters stage and he can figure in one day races too. Even last year with his podium in Paris Roubaix and remaining at the sharp end on the Ronde until the last few km’s showed that Degenkolb could prove to be the more intriguing Giant sprinter to watch in 2015.

The other take out for me in Dubai was Elia Viviani taking stage 2 and his first win in Sky colours. I think Viviani will be a great signing for Sky as they haven’t had a pure speed guy since Cavendish left. Of course it’s possible that Viviani will end up feeling just as frustrated as Cavendish if he’s selected for the Tour as Sky will be entirely focused on getting Chris Froome back into the yellow jersey, but if instead the Italian is picked for the Giro I expect he will claim wins. Sky also had Ben Swift in Dubai, but he’s morphed into a Degenkolb style rider and will be hoping to improve upon his third place at last years MSR. Most of the column inches will be given over to Bradley Wiggins tilt at Paris Roubaix this season and as much I would like to see Wiggins feature there I’m hoping that Swift is able to build on his return to form last year and get a big win in 2015.

It was a shame that we didn’t get to see any of the action from the Tour of Oman this year. Since I started the blog I have enjoyed getting an early look at the grand tour contenders in what is the only one of the desert races that isn’t all flat stick racing. It’s often a good guide to form for the summer too, although Froome’s repeat win in 2014 ultimately didn’t guarantee a repeat in the Tour. Whether or not it was to do with the TV coverage this year (or lack of) the big names were absent from this years edition with Valverde and Tejay Van Garderen the pre-race favourites. Vincenzo Nibali was in Oman (and Dubai) but his presence has been decidedly low key and at this point his form is as much of a closed book as it was ahead of last years Tour.

The eventual winner was Lampre’s Rafael Valls (no, me neither). Valls won the key stage with the summit finish on the Green Mountain from Van Garderen and this was enough to ensure the overall. From the VCSE sofa Valls looks like one of those riders who could be (infamously) described as ‘coming from nowhere’. He’s been with Lampre since Vacansoleil folded at the end of 2013 and this win is by far his biggest to date. Lampre, who didn’t exactly see much of a return on investment from Chris Horner last season and have finally parted company with perennial under achiever Damiano Cunego no doubt will wish Valls’ victory heralds the dawn of something big. If he does build on the result this could mean big things for Spanish cycling too as Alberto Contador is discussing retirement and Valverde isn’t getting any younger.

It’s hard to say why there wasn’t at least a daily highlights package from Oman this year. Of the three desert races Dubai, the upstart, has by far and way the best coverage in so much as you can watch it live. The Tour of Oman is an ASO supported race and no less than Eddy Merckx is on hand to glad hand the press and yet it has been possible only to follow ‘live’ on social media in 2015. Oman doesn’t have the riches of Dubai (or Qatar) but surely it’s the quality of the racing that should take precedent as far as coverage is concerned? Oman’s demotion in the TV stakes is a bit of an uncomfortable example of what happens in a sport where there is (comparatively) little money around. If the future of the early season racing (at least as far as TV is concerned) is that armchair fans can only see the ‘action’ in Dubai because that’s where the money flows it will be a change for the worse.

Continue reading How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

A tale of two cycling holidays – part one

Chasing the Tour in 2013 – Auvergne, Languedoc and Tours 

In the week that Team Sky controlled the peloton in the Pyrenees and Bradley Wiggins tightened his grip on the 2012 Tour de France GC I was waiting to board a flight at Alicante airport with Mrs VCSE. We were returning from a summer trip to Barcelona and the Costa Blanca, taking advantage of the expansion of our local airport that now offered flights to many European destinations less than five minutes from our front door. We would be back home to see Wiggins claim the yellow jersey in the penultimate stage TT and Mark Cavendish take his fourth win in a row on the Champs Elysee (this time in the world champion’s rainbow stripes), but first we had the small matter of a flight to board.

Quiet roads - riding in the Auvergne
Quiet roads – riding in the Auvergne

We were making the return flight to the UK with the same mix of luggage that we had flown with internally from Barcelona to Alicante a week previously although I was about to find out that this was no guarantee that the next flight would be as straightforward. The gate staff showed less interest in my boarding pass than in the holdall that I was using as hand luggage. We had bought the bag in Barcelona. I had long cherished the idea of purchasing one of the various upcycled items that an enterprising Barcelona retailer made out of the vinyl posters that line the streets in the Catalan capital. Imagine something made out of various off cuts of multicoloured sail cloth and you will get the idea that my choice of cabin bag was hard to miss. It was also apparently to big for me to carry onto the plane and the unsmiling agent at the gate relieved me of 50 euros for my indiscretion. As I caught up with Mrs VCSE on the gangway I announced that it was the “last f**king time I’m flying!”. Adding insult to injury (and these are ‘first world problems’ I appreciate) on boarding the plane the cabin crew didn’t bat an eyelid at the offending, supposed oversized bag and contrary to what I had been  told at the gate it wasn’t unceremoniously removed to the hold!

The point of all of this preamble is that the ‘unfortunate incident of the bag that was too big for the cabin’ was the catalyst for the first of the two cycling holidays described here. When the 2013 Tour de France route was announced in October we looked at where we could base ourselves to take in some stages while doing some riding of our own. The 2013 edition of the Tour would start in Corsica before making its way back to the mainland and across the south of France from west to east and into the Pyrenees. The initial plan was to try to find somewhere in the Alpes with the double ascent of Alp d’Huez stage on Bastille Day as a potential centrepiece of the trip. We wondered if we would be able to afford anywhere but price didn’t even come into it as we struggled to find anywhere to stay where we could take the bikes too. We started to look for some alternatives. Having a base around Bordeaux or Brittany was ruled out as we wanted to try to guarantee some sunshine. With one stage finishing and starting (the following day) in Montpellier we set a 50km radius from the city and scouted the ‘net to see what was available. A villa in a small village outside the town of Pezenas was right on the limit of our search area but fulfilled the criteria of private with pool and somewhere secure to store our bikes.

Pezenas is in the Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon and is best known for its association with the playwright Moliere; the principal (early 19th century) theatre in the town is dedicated to him. Today Pezenas is a thriving centre for antiques and the arts within the largely pedestrianised old town. The VCSE base in Nizas is around 10km from town surrounded by local vineyards. With the plan to drive to the south from the UK we also looked for a couple of places to break up the journey in each direction. On the outward leg we found a chambre d’hote (or B&B if you prefer) near Clermont Ferrand and on the return journey we could catch another stage finish/start in Tours. Cross channel travel was via Eurostar as we had a car full of luggage and nearly £3000 worth of bikes on the car.

A quick sidebar here. If you’re travelling any kind of distance by car with more than one bike a rack is essential (there are few cars that can take two bikes inside). I prefer to use a towbar rack if more than one bike is concerned. There are benefits to this type of rack from a number of points of view. They are generally a better choice from an economy perspective although that has to balanced against the upfront cost of the rack and towbar and depending on the model chosen tow bar racks are more secure from theft. Budget around £250-300 for a two bike rack (ours is from Thule) and around £400-£500 for a tow bar and fitting. I have also used a (Thule) roof bar set up and while these are cheaper I have had some bad experiences with damage to bikes with these in use. 

We set off on the same day as the first stage of the 2013 Grand Depart in Corsica and so we would miss the Orica team bus getting stuck under the finish gantry and more significantly the first sign that Mark Cavendish was no longer the fastest man in the peloton. A year before the opening stage in Yorkshire Christian Prudhomme had given Cavendish a golden (or perhaps or more obvious colour) opportunity to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours by foregoing an opening prologue stage in favour of a likely sprint finish. At the time it was blame it on the bus driver, but in hindsight this was the emergence of Marcel Kittel as Cav’s heir apparent.

We chose a route to the Auvergne that bypassed Paris and struck out west and then south via Rouen, Chartres (where Wiggins had triumphed in the penultimate stage in 2012), Orleans and Bourges. The unexpected aspect of the journey on that Saturday was that the weather got worse the further south we went and as we began to climb towards our overnight stay near Thiers (the cutlery capital of France if you were wondering) we entered the clouds in a heavy rainstorm.

Continue reading A tale of two cycling holidays – part one

Back to ’09.. just don’t mention doping!

Tour Down Under launches the 2015 road racing season

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was bemoaning the lack of television coverage (at least in the UK) of the Tour Down Under. Some of that discussion neatly ties in with a recent post I wrote about the launch of Velon and the possible implications that will have for armchair fans in the future (you can read about that here http://tinyurl.com/k3w6poo). If i’m honest I haven’t paid that much attention to the goings on in Australia and even less to the race about to start in Argentina (until today that is). I guess it’s because the TDU takes place during the (Australian) summer and we’re still ‘enjoying’ the coldest part of the year in Europe. I’ll watch the races in Qatar and Dubai, but for me anyway the season doesn’t properly start until the weekend of Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussels Kuurne where the riders will at least be similarly dressed to me.

Cav v Heino - in the news for different reasons
Cav v Heino – in the news for different reasons

Anyway, back down under for a moment and firstly I will point you to an article by Lee Rodgers AKA Crankpunk (read that here http://tinyurl.com/m7q8hqs). The interesting point CP makes is that the timing of the TDU and the Aussie National Road Race Champs’ can give a bit of a distorted picture of riders form going into the season proper. It’s an interesting theory and the article looks at Richie Porte’s prospects for 2015 as he’s currently saying how good he’s feeling at the moment. The only way for Richie ought to be up as last season can’t have gone any worse for him really. He’s already got the Aussie TT jersey but I don’t think it’s either important or significant if Porte wins the TDU. What will be interesting is how Sky intend to use him this year. Before everything went pear shaped for Porte in 2014 he was lined up to defend his Paris Nice title until Sky withdrew him at the eleventh hour to ride for Chris Froome at Tirreno Adriatico. With the benefit of hindsight Sky’s desire to protect their star rider made sense but at the time it seemed like a strange decision and for all of the physical problems that dogged Froome’s BFF last year I wonder if having his programme messed with had a negative impact psychologically on Porte.

There was a lot of speculation last year, some of it stoked by the rider himself, that Richie would need to consider life away from Sky if he was to really fulfil his potential as a GC rider in the grand tours. I think the way Sky handle Porte this year will have a huge influence on whether or not he decides to stay with the team. I wonder if the stars are poised to align at some point in the next year or so that will see Porte move to Australia’s team Orica Green Edge, with one or both of the Yates brothers moving in the opposite direction to Sky.

Talking of Aussie riders I was super happy to see Heinrich Haussler take the Aussie road race title last week. I have been a massive fan of Heino since his Cervelo days and while it has been a while coming it’s great to see him getting a result like this for IAM cycling in their first year at the highest level. Haussler has been out of the limelight for a long time and he wasn’t wrong when he described his win as the biggest of his career. I hope that Heino can kick on from this result; he’s due a better showing in the spring classics too. I remember meeting him during his first year with IAM and he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would have sought him out when the big crowds were surrounding the Sky Death Star. Hopefully in 2015 Haussler can remind a few more people of just how exciting he was to watch back in 2009.

Continue reading Back to ’09.. just don’t mention doping!

Finally.. something to wear – new VCSE cycling kit

After the demise of the VCSE t shirt store last year it was probably about time we had something to sell again (and here it is). VCSE has teamed up with West Coast (that’s USA rather than Virgin Trains) design company Jakroo to launch our first cycling jersey. It’s a bit of homage / tribute / rip-off (delete as applicable) to the HTC kit of yesteryear and has a (hopefully) classic design in black and white with (so on trend) flouro yellow accents.

New VCSE Race S/S Jersey
New VCSE Race S/S Jersey

There should be more products to follow in the new year and at the very least we’re hoping to add a winter jacket and two types of bibs. Individual orders can be done with Jakroo directly in the US but there are significant savings to be made by ordering in bulk so please check in with us first and I will advise on pricing. There’s more info via the link on the right hand side of the page (if you’re reading this on a laptop) or scroll to the bottom of the post if you’re on a tablet or mobile. There’s a (new) dedicated page ‘VCSE store’ at the top of the page (or via the menu on mobile devices) that has all of the links and info you need.

http://shop.jakroo.com/VCSE-Design-1

Velon – Can cycling do a Premier League? (and do we want it to..)

Waking up to press reports about the launch of Velon this morning. With a good percentage of the world tour (including Sky) signed up already it’s looking like an attempt by the teams to exert greater control over the way the sport is currently organised.

In itself, a greater say for the teams, isn’t an obviously ‘bad’ thing. Some team principals have bemoaned the lack of a transfer system for example that could introduce a vital revenue stream for teams at all levels. Then there’s the race calendar that prevents the world’s best riders competing against each other due to events clashing. A powerful bloc in the sport negotiating to ensure future financial viability could (in theory) transform cycling for the better.

Velon - big changes for the peloton?
Velon – big changes for the peloton?

While a transfer system isn’t explicitly mentioned in today’s news story, one of the Velon co-signatories Dave Brailsford is a proponent of team’s receiving a benefit from the movement of riders they have developed elsewhere. VCSE agrees that a reorganisation of how riders move between teams is long overdue. Looking at the UK for example where even successful teams disappear almost overnight for lack of a sponsor, revenue from a transfer (Adam Blyth from NFTO to Orica say) could ensure a smaller teams survival. This has been part of the operating model in football for years. However, there’s a risk that a transfer system within cycling could also lead to some of the same outcomes ‘enjoyed’ within football, with the teams with the biggest budgets snapping up the best riders to the detriment of competition. Sure it’s unlikely that a transfer system would produce a different grand tour winner to the default Contador, Froome or Nibali, but it could result in a dominance among certain teams that (potentially) damages the spectacle. On the whole though if one of the aims of Velon is to instigate a framework that provides teams with another revenue stream besides sponsorship this can only be a good thing.

The challenge for Velon is to ensure that the stated aim at the heart of the project; to have ‘fans’ at the ‘centre’ is actually delivered. While there are some obvious beneficial parallels to the introduction of the Premier League (EPL) there are other aspects that cycling shouldn’t be seeking to replicate. For the moment cycling is a relatively accessible sport for someone who wants to start a team, with even some world tour teams able to operate on a budget of just a few million euros. In football, the EPL in particular but also the top leagues in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy require annual investment of hundreds if not billions of dollars. In the case of the EPL much of this money has come from an ever increasing amount of cash from Sky as the main broadcaster of live matches. Over the years as Sky have bid ever more for the TV rights the clubs who have managed to stay in the top flight have become in turns bloated and (yet) increasingly reliant on the moneytrain. While it can be argued that Sky’s involvement has been good for the fans in that it has forced every broadcaster to raise their ‘game’ as far as showing football is concerned, there remains a small but vocal minority who feel that it hasn’t always been for the best. The loss of the ‘traditional’ 3 o’clock kick off and the price of a ticket to a game are just two of the complaints often levelled at the EPL host station and clubs.

What does any of this have to do with Velon? The EPL started as a group of football club chairman (who in those days were as likely to be the owner of the club too) getting together to discuss a breakaway league. This was in response to their perceived viewpoint that the terrestial (and free to air) networks weren’t giving them (the clubs) full value for money in what was at the time a nascent live football environment. The launch of the EPL on Sky was certainly sold to fans and viewers as football with the fans at the centre, although it would be harder to make that claim now.

On the very day that Velon is announced it might seem cynical to question its aims, particularly as it has the opportunity to make the sport more sustainable for its participants and that can only be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how Velon can operate in the (now) three way space between the UCI and the race organisers. There would appear to be no obvious benefit in holding key early season races like Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico at the same time for example, although whether a move to non clashing dates would see riders take part in both races is harder to imagine. Then there’s the question of TV money. Within the UK, cycling is not so mainstream that many races are shown free to air. For the committed cycling fan some kind of subscription to a satellite or cable provider is essential to be able to see the spring classics or each grand tour ‘live’. Long before donning their Velon hats team principals have volunteered that they don’t feel that get enough of the benefits derived from the biggest races by the organisers. It’s difficult to see a ‘turkeys voting for Xmas’ scenario whereby ASO surrenders a share of their earnings from the Tour. Might some of the teams push towards a television model that requires the armchair fan to reach further in their pockets to watch ‘their’ chosen sport? One of the reasons why races like the Vuelta have seen such an increase in support by fans at the roadside in recent years is the fact that cycling is one of the few (if not the only) professional sports that’s free for spectators. It would be good to see Velon enshrine a commitment to having ‘fans at the centre’ that would guarantee that this state continues. Cycling does not need to introduce ticketing into the final kilometre.

If Velon can deliver a sustainable model where there’s an incentive for all teams to develop young riders (and while we’re at it a women’s team for every world tour outfit), a racing calendar that avoids date clashes for the biggest races while (at least) retaining the current level of accessibility for fans we should all be celebrating in a few years time. However, it’s so instructive to look at the examples from other sports and perhaps, at least a little, to be careful what we wish for..