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 

 

The curious case of no* Brits at the Tour

While putting the Tour preview to bed this morning VCSE was missing the developing story on social media that two more British riders were being omitted from their respective Tour teams. David Millar, apparently inked in last week was binned after what his team determined to be a sub par performance at the British road nationals. Alex Dowsett was withdrawn due to what was described as ‘breathing problems’. At the time of writing there doesn’t appear to be any more to the Movistar riders withdrawal (Alex hasn’t commented) and it must be gutting for him after missing out on the Olympics in 2012 due to a broken leg.

Down and out of the Tour - David Millar (pic copyright James Start)

Down and out of the Tour – David Millar (pic copyright James Start)

Movistar had obviously seen the benefits of including the Essex based rider when they announced their line up, especially as stage 3 would cover some of the roads that Dowsett trains on week in week out. As popular as riders like Mark Cavendish are (ironically another Essex roads rider) Dowsett would be have been guaranteed lots of support on his home roads.

The Millar scenario is different and has a whiff of Wiggins about it, although for entirely different reasons. Millar was the marquee rider on the Garmin team when they first joined the (now) world tour and won a stage at the Tour as recently as 2012. Long since cast in the role of domestique / sage Millar announced at the end of last season that 2014 would be his final year and he has made a number of valedictory appearances in races this year.

It was always unlikely that Millar would trouble the GC if he raced the Tour but the sheer bloody mindedness of the rider suggested that he would identify one or two stages to ‘go hard or go home’ in search of a breakaway stage win. He didn’t feature in yesterdays GB national road race and withdrew from his arguably stronger event, the TT, last week in an effort to be fit for the Tour. Millar had outed himself as part of the Tour team by accident a couple of weeks earlier when he tweeted that he was ‘packed’ for the Tour and was painfully prescient when he suggested that a lack of contact from his Garmin colleagues last night could signify that he had lost his Tour place. Whether or not his deselection has “killed” his relationship with his team remains to be seen, but it evidences that Garmin want to make a serious tilt at the Tour rather than allow Millar a sentimental journey.

Garmin had a disastrous start to the Giro earlier this year losing team leader Dan Martin before the first stage was even over. It’s entirely possible that there’s a commercial imperative for the team to put in a stronger showing at the Tour. The emphasis is on the team here. Ryder Hesjedal was able to put in a decent showing pretty much unsupported at the Giro. Millar could have delivered views of the Garmin jersey on television similarly, if by a slighty different route to Hesjedal but maybe the team and the sponsor want more. Maybe the 2014 Tour is all about the team delivering a result, even if ultimately it will be an individual (in this case Andrew Talansky) who takes the plaudits.

If that was the case though why wait until five days before the Tour starts to decide. Would Millar really have been such a deadweight to the team, particularly as the toughest stages are back ended on this years route? Burying bad news about another British crowd favourite not taking part in the Yorkshire Grand Depart is pretty difficult at a time when even the mainstream media start to take a proper interest in the sport.

With the emergence of a British team that has been incredibly successful on the world stage, two Tour wins and two huge hauls of Olympic gold medals since the last time the Tour visited the UK it seems perverse that there will only be three British riders at the start this weekend (and one of those flies under a flag of convenience). It’s likely that the organisers, ASO and the team in Yorkshire, didn’t think anything else could go wrong after Bradley Wiggins omission by Sky, but the absence of Millar in particular is the nasty tasting icing on that rather inedible cake.

* well.. not many anyway

VCSE’s 2014 Tour de France preview

General Classification 

This time a year ago the talk was not so much of who would win the Tour but the margin of victory. With the exception of Tirreno Adriatico Chris Froome had been victorious in everything he had entered and he was the firm favourite ahead of the opening stages in Corsica. This year the pre-race chatter has been dominated by the will they, won’t they (non) selection of Bradley Wiggins for Sky’s Tour team.

In yellow again this year? - Alberto Contador

In yellow again this year? – Alberto Contador

In some ways this has been a welcome distraction for Froome as his season to date has been punctuated by injury, illness and being found wanting by some of his chief rivals for the GC this year, most recently Alberto Contador in the Criterium du Dauphine. As defending champion and undisputed leader of the Sky team Froome is of course among the favourites for the 101st edition of the Tour. The key here is that he is merely among the favourites, rather than being the outstanding candidate to take the general classification. Sky’s domination of the race in recent years does allow this rivals to remain somewhere below the radar however. Contador, who gave the impression of a rider clinging on by his fingernails in last years race has looked back to his best this year, showing his best form when he has wanted to demonstrate his superiority of a rival like he did to Alejandro Valverde at this years Pais Vasco.

Contador looks most likely to break the Sky hold over the GC, but there are other riders waiting in the wings who may yet cause an upset on the way. The aforementioned Valverde has looked other worldly at times, particularly in the early season. It’s hard to imagine that the Spaniard will be any more than a podium contender though. If Movistar had wanted to win this year they should have picked Nairo Quintana, last years runner up and this years Giro victor. Last years Giro winner Vicenzo Nibali should arguably have been the man cast in Contador’s role this year. Utterly dominant in the 2013 Giro and Tirreno Adriatico (where he crucially had the beating of Froome) Nibali began to fray around the edges at the Vuelta and he hasn’t looked anywhere near his 2013 best this season. Nibali was often a thorn in Sky’s side at the 2012 Tour though and he has the ability to hurt the GC riders in the mountain stages.  A podium is a possibility, but VCSE suspects that a stage win or two may prove to be the goal for the Astana leader.

In Quintana’s absence the young guns should be well represented by US pairing Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky. BMC struggled last year trying to accomodate two leaders in Cadel Evans and van Garderen. Evans’ absence this year should help Tejay but he would have to be an outside bet for a podium place. A top ten is more likely. Talansky’s Garmin team have demonstrated their mastery of in race tactics, particularly when targeting a stage win as with Dan Martin in the Pyrenees last year. Talansky was in the right place at the right time in the Dauphine when he stole the race lead from Contador on the last stage to win the overall. He’s a stronger candidate for the podium than van Garderen but once again a top 10 feels more likely. This is Talansky’s opportunity to improve on his result from last years Tour and to become the rider around who future Garmin Tour efforts are built now that Martin’s year has been disrupted by injury.

Aside of the main contenders Joaquim Rodriguez was a fairly late addition for the Tour after his plans for the Giro were upset by injury in the Ardennes. Rodriguez took a stealthy podium last year but it’s harder to see him repeating that result 12 months later. Belkin, in the form of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam were a bit of surprise package last year. The Dutch outfit have the motivation (if not pressure) of the announcement that their team sponsor are withdrawing at the end of this season and Mollema has looked in good form in recent weeks. Again it’s an unlikely podium, but with the teams sponsor difficulties a headline grabbing stage win could be the target for the either rider.

World champion Rui Costa was successful with stage wins last year but his goal this year will be a stronger showing on GC. He’s managed a win in the rainbow stripes this season which deals with any superstitious fears that may have existed for the rider about the supposed ‘curse’ but it’s unlikely he will be looking to repeat wins in 2014. France demands at least one stage win in the race it gave to the world. Last year we had a long wait for Christophe Riblon to come good for AG2R. VCSE offers the following names to look out for at this years Tour for GC contention and / or a stage win; Roman Bardet (AG2R) and  Kevin Reza (Europcar).

With the loss of Vacansoleil and the elevation of Europcar to the world tour it’s meant that we have a bit more variety in the wildcard invitations this year. Anglo-German Net App Endura have a decent shout of a top 10 with Leopold Konig after the teams ‘dry run’ at last years Vuelta. IAM cycling were in contention for the overall at the Tour de Suisse and will bring a strong squad to the Tour with previous stage winners in Chavanel and Haussler. Stage wins may well be the target for the team, but they have riders that could prove to be contenders on GC also.

So who will actually win? Putting aside the fact the Froome is hard to like because of the Wiggins non-selection he remains the rider most likely to win this years Tour, albeit with more caveats than last year. Contador looks super strong and if Valverde and Nibali both bring their A game the Sky rider will face more assaults than he did a year ago. Also Froome’s most trusted helper Richie Porte is struggling for form and it remains to be seen if Mikel Nieve can establish a similar bond with his leader. Sky have assembled a very experienced unit with a good mix of riders who can shepherd Froome through the tricky stages like Arenberg as well as the type of stage that saw him cut adrift by cross winds last year. This is Contador’s best chance of a repeat Tour victory, but he has lost a key helper in Roman Kreuziger due to bio passport irregularities just days ahead of the grand depart. Will this upset the Tinkoff Saxo applecart? Unlikely, but anything that chips away at Contador’s confidence will be to Froome’s benefit. Every GC rider faces the difficult stages in Yorkshire and on the Roubaix cobbles and this could lead to some riders going out of contention before the peloton reaches the Vosges for the start of the climbing proper.

VCSE’s GC predictions – 1. Froome 2. Contador 3. Talansky

The sprinters battle 

Mark Cavendish will have another go at claiming the maillot jaune for the first time in his career. Cavendish could place some of the blame for missing out on yellow on last years first stage on the Orica team bus getting stuck at the finish line, but as the race went on it became clear that he’s no longer the man to beat in sprint stages. Marcel Kittel may have ‘stolen’ Cav’s jersey on that first stage in Corsica but by beating the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider in Paris it looked as if the crown and sceptre for the king of the fast men was going to the younger man. Even if Cavendish wasn’t targeting the win into his Mum’s home town of Harrogate on Saturday he can rely on a partisan UK crowd and the media to make it ‘his’ goal. In some ways there’s more pressure on Cavendish to win this stage than their will be to beat Kittel on the Champs Elysee in three weeks time. Both riders have reconnoitered the opening stages and while Kittel may respect his rival he won’t be sentimental about handing the win to Cavendish. Much as VCSE would like to see Cavendish take yellow it seems more likely that Kittel will take the lions share of the stage wins and will lead the GC into the second stage.

Can he wear yellow?  - Mark Cavendish

Can he wear yellow? – Mark Cavendish

Peter Sagan only managed a single stage victory at last years Tour but should see a third straight win in the points competition. Sagan could target a victory as early as stage 2 which has been described as a Yorkshire version of Liege Bastogne Liege. He will also be among the favourites for the stage that takes in part of the Paris Roubaix cobbled route on stage 5. Sagan could have a rival this year in Orica’s Simon Gerrans, a rider in good form who while unable to match Sagan in a sprint is as least as good if not better over the climbs.

Andre Greipel is reduced to playing second, if not third fiddle to Cavendish and Kittel these days and will need some kind of mishap to befall the leading riders to be in with a chance of stage win at this years Tour. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare has won the internal battle to become lead rider and could be another outside bet for a win, but is more likely to contest stage podiums.

KOM is harder to predict this year. It’s possible that we might see a repeat of 2012 where the rider in the break secures the points and the jersey and this seems more likely than a repeat of last year where Quintana took a sweep of the KOM and young riders jerseys on his way to second place.

Key stages of the 2014 Tour de France 

Armchair fans can watch the race live on ITV4 and British Eurosport again this year. Who you choose may depend on your choice of television provider but it’s a shame that Eurosport won’t repeat their pairing of Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly like they did at the Giro. Hatch seemed to get the best out of Kelly and their commentary is preferable to the prospect of Carlton Kirby in the lead chair. Kirby is as eccentric as Phil Liggett is predictable but ITV4 will probably win out thanks to a stronger presentation team in Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman outweighing Liggetts spoonerisms.

With a UK grand depart it’s also a lot easier to go and see the race in person although the peloton will disappear in a bit of flash on the flat stage 3 into London. The fan parks in Yorkshire and London may be better places to watch the action before heading to the finish line to see the final sprints.

Stages 1 thru’ 3 – Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, Cambridge to London Sat, Sun, Mon 5,6,7th July

The UK based stages will be worth a watch to see if Mark Cavendish can claim his first ever yellow jersey on stage 1 and to see if there are any early GC casualties on the challenging stage 2 that has 9 catergorised climbs.

Stage 5 – Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut Weds 9th July 

The stage that takes in 15 kilometres of the Paris Roubaix cobbles is otherwise a flat, transitional stage. GC riders will be looking to stay out of trouble and it’s likely to be a chance for the rouleurs from each team to grab some glory with a stage win.

Stage 10 – Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles Mon 14th July

The summit finish where Froome won the stage in 2012 and Wiggins took the maillot jaune revisits in 2014 after a testing stage the previous day where the Tour takes in the first cat 1 climb of the race and the highest peak in the Vosges the Grand Ballon. Stage 10 has three other cat 1 climbs besides the Belle Filles along with a pair of cat 2 and a single cat 3 climb over its 162kms.

Stage 14 – Grenoble to Risoul Sat 19th July 

The toughest day the peloton will face in the Alps this year. The stage includes the Col d’Izoard one of the most iconic climbs that the Tour uses and home to some of its most dramatic scenery. The stage has a cat 1 summit finish at Risoul

Stage 17 – St Gaudens to St Lary Pla D’Adet Weds 23rd July

Three cat 1 climbs including the Peyresourde before finishing with a HC summit finish of just over 10km at slightly more than 8%. It’s the shortest stage outside of the TT stages but should be a tough one.

Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam Thurs 24th July

The final day of climbing in this years Tour takes in the famed climbs of the Tourmalet and finishing atop the Hautacam. Both climbs are HC and account for roughly 20% of the stages entire distance. If the GC isn’t decided by now it’s still possible that the TT  on Saturday could provide a final shake up.

Stage 19 – Bergerac to Perigueux Sat 26th July 

The penultimate stage has the potential to be a TT that’s actually worth watching live or merely be the icing on the GC cake for the holder of the maillot jaune. If there are still small time gaps between the leading contenders then riders will be looking over the shoulders as the strong testers take back time on them. If Froome is leading at this point, this stage is likely to increase the gap. If it’s Contador he will have to hope that he has built up enough of a cushion in the Pyrenees.

Links

VCSE’s 2013 Tour de France Preview http://wp.me/p3g8fZ-bUtbN

VCSE’s guide to the Col d’Izoard  http://wp.me/p3g8fZ-bQWIg

 

2014 Tour de France route

2014 Tour de France route

 

TUE be or not TUE be.. – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

Just as night follows day the winning the Dauphine has become part of the landscape for Sky on their way to winning the Tour a few weeks later. In 2012 it was Bradley Wiggins and a year later Chris Froome. For Froome victory would have been a strong indication of his form ahead of his July target, his race programme for 2014 had been extremely low key so far, although both times he had raced he had won the GC (Oman and Romandie). Backed by a team of domestiques deluxe who would make anyone’s Tour team Froome would be facing off against some of his key rivals for the yellow jersey when the Tour gets underway in Yorkshire and a few pretenders who would be troubling the top ten. Alberto Contador was looking back to his best form of 18 months ago when he captured the Vuelta and Vicenzo Nibali, who while not enjoying the same kind of results would be seen as threat to the Sky rider.

"Your name's not down, you're not coming in" Wiggins and Froome

“Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” Wiggins and Froome

Froome has a teflon like ability to rise above the ‘noise’ that follows the Tour de France champion although he could not avoid the fact that he was a big part of the story ahead of the race. Following the serialisation of his book in the Sunday Times (ghost written by ST journalist David Walsh) which had cherry picked the chapters that focused on the Froome / Wiggins ‘relationship’ (and lack there of), Wiggins had popped up on radio and TV to announce that he wouldn’t be riding the Tour. In itself this was a juicy narrative for the rotters of the press and social media to get stuck into (VCSE pleads guilty; see the previous post). The will he, won’t he selection of Wiggins for the Sky Tour roster was merely an apertif though. First, we had Froome looking vulnerable and falling out of the GC lead he had establish in the stage 1 prologue and then we had a rather messy spat between sections of the (French) press and Sky over a TUE.

For the casual follower of the sport a TUE can be explained as a ‘sick note’ that excuses the rider for using a banned substance if it is necessary to treat a particular condition. So far, so reasonable but TUE’s have a very murky past. It was a false and post dated TUE that Lance Armstrong used to explain the prescence of cortisoids in the ’99 Tour. Ironically and certainly unfortunately for Froome it was the same variety of banned substance that got him into hot water at the Dauphine.

After crossing the line ahead of Contador on stage 2 Froome was given an inhaler. No attempt was made to conceal its use and this is an important point. Sky handled the following furore with the typical cack handedness they display when the aren’t in control of the story (or indeed a race) and this certainly didn’t help the situation. Over the course of the week it emerged that Froome had previously stated he didn’t suffer from asthma, the reason given for the use of the inhaler and some commentators took things off on a tangent suggesting that Sky and their rider were somehow being ‘protected’ by the UCI. Perhaps the most damming criticism came from Walsh who had spent the previous year embedded with the team as well as writing the Froome tome. Walsh felt that Sky were backtracking significantly from the standards they had set for themselves at the team’s inception, that they wouldn’t race a rider that needed a TUE.

Things are so toxic because of Armstrong and the TUE use cannot help but remind people of cycling’s dark recent past. Sky’s whole reason for existence stems from a desire to race and win clean and the story of Froome’s inhaler shouldn’t be seen as history repeating. Much of the reason for this is what subsequently happened at the Dauphine. Over the final two stages of the race Froome lost his place and the leaders yellow jersey to Contador on Saturday and on the final day fell out of the top ten altogether.

Contador, point proven perhaps, lost the lead himself on stage 8 to Garmin’s Andrew Talansky an emotional victor hinting that Garmin may seek to do more than just go for stage wins at the Tour. Besides the collapse of their team leader Sky have a further headache in the loss of form that Richie Porte is going through. Porte has suffered a string of bad luck and non finishes since switching from Paris Nice to Tirreno Adriatico early on in the season. He will go to the Tour but it seems more likely that Froome will be reliant on Euskatel Mikel Nieve as his last man standing. Whether or not Froome will click with Nieve the way he does with Porte remains to be seen and Sky’s jangling nerves won’t have been soothed by Contador’s results with what was pretty much a Tinkoff Saxo B team supporting him.

Another rider dusting himself off after a poor week was Nibali who didn’t look like troubling the podium from the prologue onwards. There are a lot of noises off around Astana at the moment with Nibali and the Italian contingent seemingly at odds with the Kazakh management. It maybe too early for a parting of the ways, but it will take some of the bloody mindedness that Nibali displayed at the 2012 Tour in the face of Sky dominance for him to deliver another podium place in July.

Another young rider emerging with credit was Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman. With Belkin announcing that they are leaving the sport less than a year after coming Kelderman’s fourth place could prove timely. The team may yet survive as bike supplier Bianchi are keen to remain, but this will dependent on finding a title sponsor and results so far this year have been patchy at best. Orica’s Adam Yates delivered another strong finish in sixth, but will probably find himself squeezed into the top 20 or so, assuming the Aussies select him for the Tour. It’s possible they might be teeing up Simon Gerrans for a tilt at the points jersey if he can get over the climbs better than Peter Sagan this year and the Cannondale rider is squeezed out of the sprints by the three way battle between Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel.

Tour de Suisse 2014

The question for fans of Britain’s cycling knight ahead of the Tour de Suisse was would Bradley Wiggins use the race as an opportunity to stick a metaphorical finger up at Team Sky’s management in general and Chris Froome and Dave Brailsford in particular. Having announced that as far as he was concerned that he wouldn’t be part of Froome’s back up at the Tour a win in Switzerland seemed like the perfect risposte to the apparent snub delivered to the 2012 Tour de France winner. That Wiggins chose not to get on the pace, finishing more than 30 seconds down on the opening stage prologue, before losing more time on the subsequent stage and withdrawing from the race early is typical, although not for the reasons some would think.

Wiggins is goal driven and after riding Paris Roubaix and winning the Tour of California his stated aim was ride (in support of Froome) at the Tour. Having summised that he would be surplus to requirements in July Wiggins would not have felt the motivation to demonstrate his form in Switzerland while Froome rode in the Dauphine. The difference between the driven, target in mind Wiggins and the rider whose heart just isn’t in it is palpable and Wiggins was probably grateful in some strange way that the accident he was caught up in while loitering at the back of the peloton provided a platform for him to bow out early.

Some might say that Wiggins was doing the equivlent of taking his ball and going home and there is perhaps something in this. Now it’s clear that Wiggins never wanted to race the Giro last year it does go some way to explain his poor results and showing in the run up to that race. Wiggins may have felt that he deserved inclusion in the Tour team based on (delete as applicable) being a previous Tour winner and with the race starting in Yorkshire, but this ignores the fact that he merits inclusion based on form alone if you look at how he dominated the Tour of California.

The leader for much of the week was Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin who managed to hold on to the leaders jersey right up until the closing kilometres of the final stage. Martin had clung on through two mountain stages without much in the way of riders to support him; OPQS using the race to drill the Cavendish lead out train further ahead of the Tour. Martin took the lead after winning the prologue and cemented things further later in the week with victory in the TT also. He was eventually undone by world champion Rui Costa who is enjoying a better year than his predecessor in the rainbow stripes Philippe Gilbert.

Martin, lacking support, was powerless to stop a large break going away on the final stage that included Costa and he was able to distance his remaining companions in the break to claim victory over Belkin’s Bauke Mollema and IAM’s Mathias Frank who made out the overall podium as well.

With the Tour starting a week on Monday there’s a bit of a hiatus as the teams announce their shortlists and in some cases actual Tour line ups. We’re still waiting for the final Sky group but it seems likely that Wiggins won’t be a part of it with the rider announced as part of the England team for the Commenwealth Games. The party line remains that Wiggins will only be confirmed in terms of actual events if and when he isn’t selected for the Tour by Sky, but with the resurfacing of the fissure between him and Froome and the TUE controversy it seems more likely that Dave Brailsford will not wish to unsettle Froome further by including Wiggins in the squad.

“Gutted!”

Lets get this out of the way now; if Chris Froome doesn’t win the 2014 Tour de France VCSE will not be too bothered. This doesn’t mean that Froome won’t win in July. His performance during the coming week at the Criterium du Dauphine will be a good indictator of his form against two of his chief rivals Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.

No, what’s got the VCSE Froome voodoo doll out of its box is the omission of ‘teammate’ Bradley Wiggins from Sky’s Tour team and all the signs suggest that Froome is the architect of Wiggins non selection.

Thinking how much he hates Wiggins - Chris Froome

Thinking how much he hates Wiggins – Chris Froome

So why is this a problem? The relationship between the two has been well documented here and elsewhere and it’s hardly a secret that the two aren’t best of friends. But surely the selection of the Tour team should be based on form and on this basis alone it’s staggering that Wiggins hasn’t been picked. There hasn’t been much comment from Sky officially since Wiggins appeared to breakfast TV last week and announced he was “gutted” that he wasn’t doing the Tour despite being (in his view) “..in the form I was two years ago” when he won the 2012 Tour and the Olympic TT gold medal.

There was much speculation ahead of Wiggins announcement that he wouldn’t be at the Grand Depart in Yorkshire and VCSE predicted as much in the aftermath of his overall victory at the Tour of California. Much of the justification given for a potential Wiggins omission ahead of the riders confirmation that he wouldn’t be riding was based on Froome’s  need for riders around him that would work for him. So far, so reasonable, but since the start of the year Wiggins has been clear that if  selected he would ride for a Froome victory. Wiggins has been incredibly consistent about this and if we take his statements at face value he’s showed an incredible amount of humility for someone who dominated the race as recently as two years ago. In any other team, in current form, he would be an undisputed leader.

However this is not any other team and Dave Brailsford has painted himself into a corner with Froome. It’s fair to say that of the two riders Froome is perhaps by a small margin the better rider. The way he rode on the second Pyrenean stage in last years Tour demonstrated just what a talented rider he is, holding onto to the race lead in the face of concerted attacks from other teams and with no teammates left in support. But this is less about who is the stronger rider or the most likely to deliver a third Tour victory in a row for Sky, than what would be the best team. The way Wiggins destroyed the peloton by riding on the front alone and at pace on the Mount Diablo climb in the Tour of California would have made most people say (you would think) he should be in the Tour squad. After the debacle of the first half of 2013 Wiggins has won two week long stage races, been in contention for Paris Roubaix and dominated TT’s. Within weeks of finishing in the top ten and Paris Roubaix he had shed kilos to get into the kind of physical condition he was in at his best in 2012.

None of this seems to matter to Froome and Brailsford though. The suggestion is that Froome doesn’t want Wiggins in the Tour squad whatever his condition and despite the potential advantage that the 2012 winner could provide. It appears that Froome’s ‘issues’ with Wiggins goes back further from his short lived ‘rebellion’ at the 2012 Tour where he rode away from Wiggins in a demonstration of superiority on the climbs. The dislike apparently stems from a supposed lack of support from Wiggins to Froome when he was in danger of losing his place on Sky during the 2011 Vuelta. Ironically this proved to be Froome’s breakthrough race and some argue that he could have taken the overall if he had been allowed to ride, rather than support Wiggins who eventually finished third to Froome’s second place finish.

Froome then doesn’t forget a slight, perceived or real and it would seem from this point on Wiggins was in his sights and has been ever since. Whether or not this was (or is) reasonable behaviour requires better knowledge of what went on in that Spanish hotel room during that race. Wiggins is acknowledged as not the easiest person to get along with but as the undisputed figurehead of the Sky team (at the time) it might be suggested that those around him needed to adapt to his behaviour and not the other way around. It would be interesting to imagine history taking a divergent course at the end of 2012 where Wiggins was prepared to maintain the training regime that had brought such success and go for a follow up Tour win in 2013. Instead Wiggins was shunted to an ill fated attempt on the Giro after privately making clear to Sky that he couldn’t make the same sacrifices required to deliver a Tour win.

This was Wiggins downfall and where Froome fills the mould that Dave Brailsford looks for in a grand tour rider to back. For all of the jokes about ‘Chris Froome looking at stems’ it’s his metronomic approach that makes Froome the better fit for Brailsford in the Sky set up. No doubt Sky still recognise that Wiggins has the kind of reach (particularly in Britain) that Froome can currently only dream of. As personable as Froome can be on camera, it’s unlikely that people will be hanging on his every word. He will parrot the party line where Wiggins can go off message in way that would frustrate Brailsford but delight fans. There’s unlikely to be that much of a backlash against Sky when the Tour gets underway in Yorkshire. The team are pretty much ‘Team GB’ by proxy in the UK, but in a World Cup year and with Commonwealth Games competing for the back pages in addition to the rest of the summer sport Wiggins absence will not help the profile of the Tour. It speaks volumes for the arch pragmatism of Brailsford that he will put the (potential) result ahead of any marketing consideration.

This a relatively uninformed viewpoint on the whole Wiggins / Froome saga and VCSE is firmly in Team Wiggo. Reliant on the public statements of each rider the reality of the situation can be judged as much on what Wiggins has said and the absence of anything from Froome on the matter. Probably wisely he’s keeping schtum on a argument he won’t easily win. He’s also hamstrung by the fact that it’s very hard to find a classy way of saying he just doesn’t like Wiggins. If you’re inclined to take Wiggins statements at face value it does seem odd that Froome could argue that Wiggins shouldn’t be included on form or that he wouldn’t honestly fulfil a designated support role.

Wiggins will now, barring any accidents for Froome in the Dauphine (oh the irony if that happens!), concentrate on the Commonwealth Games and may ride the track as well as the road. It will be interesting to watch Wiggins in the Tour de Suisse and see if he uses it as an opportunity to stick the metaphorical finger to Froome and Brailsford.

So what now for Sky’s cycling knight. There’s already speculation about Wiggins going to Orica Green Edge and he has admitted he hasn’t got an offer from Sky for 2015. Orica’s free wheeling and relaxed (in comparison to Sky) atmosphere would probably suit. There are other possible destinations; a return to Garmin would tie in with Wiggins apparent desire to build his profile in the US but VCSE wouldn’t rule out a possible move to BMC if Cadel Evans hangs up his cleats at the end of this year.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – final week and round up

Giro d’Italia 2014 week 3 – stages 17 through 21 

After the Stelvio ‘controversy’ the peloton awarded itself a fourth rest day on Wednesday’s stage to Vittorio Veneto. As riders placed their feet in bowls of hot water and nursed a Cup a soup overnight a collective hissy fit was aired officially (between the team’s organisation, the UCI and RCS) and unofficially on social media about the legitmacy of Nairo Quintana’s stage win and capture of the race lead from Rigoberto Uran. The likelihood of teams withdrawing enmasse was never that much of a possibility and by the end of the race any lingering indignation looked academic.

Grio d'Italia 2014 winner - Nairo Quintana

Grio d’Italia 2014 winner – Nairo Quintana

From VCSE’s vantage point on the sofa it seems that any suggestion that the race ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ be neutralised disappeared when Sky’s Dario Cataldo said ‘no thanks!’ to the offer of an extra layer of clothing and his musette and went charging off on the descent. Yes, riders did stop at the top of the Stelvio, but at random. VCSE didn’t see a single example of an entire group of riders coming to a halt. The apparent ‘smoking gun’ evidence against the Quintana group, that included other GC contenders like Ryder Hesjedal, was the photo of the Columbian descending behind a moto with the pillion holding a red flag. It wasn’t altogether clear what the flag signified but it certainly wasn’t to indicate that the race had been neutralised. Whether it was safe (or not) to continue to race the descent off the Stelvio seems a moot point. Were there any crashes? In the (undoubted) confusion that followed the sum up seems to be those that chose to race, did and anyone else suffered the consequences of that.

The lack of interest shown by the new Maglia Rosa and his GC rivals the following day bore testimony at the difficulty of the previous day however. No one watching, let alone taking part, could deny it hadn’t been a tough stage with the addition of the climb to Val Martello added a 14% insult to the Stelvio / Gavia injury. The peloton crossed the line more than 15 minutes down on eventual stage winner Stefano Pirazzi. Last years KOM winner had been out of contention for that prize since the carnage of the Cassino stage but he salvaged some pride for himself and further built on Bardiani’s success at this years race.

A break of sorts was allowed the win the following day as well as the Giro returned to the mountains for its penultimate summit finish. This years KOM and (yet another) Columbian, Trek’s Julian Arredondo took the stage from compatriot Fabio Duarte reinforcing the thought that the race was rapidly becoming some kind of South American benefit. Quintana arrived with Uran, but it was Cadel Evans who was the biggest loser of the day falling off the podium and almost out of the top ten.

This years edition of the Giro was well and truly back loaded with climbs and if the Stelvio / Gavia double wasn’t enough there was still the Zoncolan to look forward to and possibly shake the GC up further. Ahead of that an uphill TT, 27km in length of which more than two-thirds averaged nearly 8% maxing out at 14%. No TT bikes here then and the climbers and GC boys to the fore. Breakaway fixtures Cataldo and Lotto’s Tim Wellens performed well for their top ten placings but the podium spots went to the GC contenders. Very nearly the ride of the stage went to Fabio Aru, just missing out on the win, but claiming a podium place from Pierre Rolland. The home crowd showed partisan support to a home rider who was now in with the best chance of a repeat Italian victory, but Quintana was the expressionless asassin of local hopes as he put 17 seconds into Aru at the line.

And so to the ‘final’ GC stage; Zoncolan. Actually, the profile shared a reasonable amount with Tuesdays three peak extravaganza adding a cat 1 and 2 climb into the mix ahead of the summit finish. A decent sized break had got away here as well and the finale provided a race within a race as we waited to see who would take the stage and could anyone threaten Quintana’s lead. The latter really wasn’t ever in doubt. While Quintana rode much of the climb unsupported, Uran hasn’t really looked capable of attacking anyone over the three weeks and certainly not since he took the Maglia Rosa. It was an OPQS rider who did the damage to split the final group to pieces, but that was Wout Poels.

Up the road stage 11 breakaway winner was involved in a dual with emerging Bardiani (yes, them again) rider Francesco Bongiorno. In truth, Rogers looked the stronger of the two even if Bongiorno hadn’t lost out when an attempt to ‘help’ him hadn’t backfired and pushed him into Rogers wheel and out of his pedal. If Rogers first win had been unexpected then a second on this stage and this climb was perhaps even more so. Rogers had more help on this one, crucially Tinkoff Saxo had two experienced men in the break, but even so the win wasn’t universally accalaimed.

Five minutes behind and below, while Rogers was helped from his bike by team owner Tinkoff, Quintana was making serene progress up the Zoncolan in attendance with a trio of QPQS outriders. If there wasn’t going to be a fight between the two Columbian’s there wasn’t much of a battle between those riders contending for the final podium place. Aru had already done the damage to Rolland and stealing a few more seconds on the line was just proving a point. You almost hoped for a Hinault, Lemond style Alpe du Huez celebration by Quintana and Uran as the line approached but despite being awarded the same time the wasn’t any overt sign of cameraderie. In the final analysis it was the Zoncolan itself that provided the drama on the day with unruly fans and the riders fighting the climb more than each other.

The final day’s parade into Trieste was always likely to finish in a sprint, although quite a few riders had a stab at winning from a break. At one stage three time stage winner Nacer Bouhanni looked like he would be out of contention, but his stalwart lead out man Sebastien Chavanel managed to pull him back to the front only for Giant’s Luka Mezgec to show once again that the team have depth behind Degenkolb and Kittel.

Giro d’Italia 2014 wrap up 

So what does this years Giro tell us about the state of play in 2014 and looking ahead to the rest of this season and the next? Nairo Quintana justified his favourite status and everyone (in particular his rivals) admits he would have won the race without needing any advantage that might have been stolen on the Stelvio stage.

It’s a leap further to suggest, as Movistar have done, that Quintana was right to target the Giro over the Tour following his second place in France last year. Of course, having made the point that Quintana was an unknown quantity going into the Giro and thus wasn’t an automatic favourtite as a result the same could be said of Chris Froome going into this years Tour. If Quintana has been so strong at the end of May it does make you wonder how good he could have been at the start of July. Movistar look like the team best placed to control a race from the front too. Without taking anything away from Quintana’s win it does feel a little like the easier option has been taken in not pitting the Columbian against Froome this  year. Of course, the Tour lacks the really steep (in sections) parcours of the Giro but it’s a shame that we will have to most likely wait until 2015 to see a Froome, Quintana match up.

The VCSE view on Rigoberto Uran ahead of the Giro was (to paraphrase Eminem) that the real Uran needed to stand up. Uran had looked second best against established OPQS rider Michael Kwiatowski  so far this year and other than the stage win where he took the Maglia Rosa didn’t look as if team leadership sat well on his shoulders. Of course, there’s no shame in finishing on the podium at a grand tour but it does look as if Uran lacks the final few percent that separate the contenders from the champions. The OPQS team selection plays a part too though, lacking enough strong climbers to go with Poels and Pauwels to match up against Movistar and the distractions of the team management making too much of the Stelvio incident.

Perhaps a bigger disappointment, at least for the home fans, was Domenico Pozzovivo. The AG2R rider carried form into the race and at the end of the first week looked like the form rider. He flattered to deceive however and while a top ten was the VCSE prediction ahead of the race, Pozzovivo didn’t fulfil his own prophesy that he would “..attack”. Cadel Evans faded sharply in the final week, his strategy of sticking with the leader during each stage back firing completely on the Stelvio stage as he got caught with Uran as Quintana rode away. Once Quintana had taken the jersey Evans looked less and less likely to not lose time. This is likely to be his last time as a challenger for GC in a grand tour.

Fabio Aru had been touted as a climbing talent ahead of the Giro, but Astana had him in a supporting role to Michele Scarponi who had joined the team to become the number two GC rider behind Vincenzo Nibali. Third place, some strong climbing performances and his win on stage 15 puts Aru into ‘great white hope’ category for Italian GC hopes in the next five years and for now the heir apparent to Nibali. It will be interesting to see now if Astana give Scarponi another shot at a grand tour in this years Vuelta or will Aru be elevated to team leader without having the role handed to him by events. Of course, Aru isn’t the only young Italian rider who has grand tour credentials in the peloton, but he has looked the most convincing this week and everyone will always take notice of an apparent ‘surprise’ emergence, just as they did with a certain Columbian last year.

Nacer Bouhanni’s win of the points jersey is an interesting one. This blog lauded Mark Cavendish’s victory last year as a triumph in a contest that doesn’t tend to favour sprinters. Does Bouhanni’s win put him on a par with Cavendish or was the competition less this year? Certainly, as mentioned in the Giro preview the first rank of sprinters were largely missing (Kittel went home after the Irish stages). If nothing else Bouhanni, out of contract this year, has put himself in the shop window and if he can take Chavanel with him could bring some much needed sprint credentials to somewhere like Sky next year.

Perhaps the happiest team in terms of results would be Bardiani with three stage victories in this years Giro. Bardiani took a stage last year, but the team that featured most at the front of the race was Vini Fantini only for them to fall foul of positive drug tests. There’s been no such suspicion about the Bardiani team this year and with the emergence of riders like Aru it’s to be hoped that scandal doesn’t engulf what could be the start of a brighter era for Italian cycling that isn’t tainted by doping.

This years Giro will be remembered as a Columbian renaissance . Amongst the crashes and manufactured controversy Quintana’s win and strong showing from Columbian riders from teams throughout the peloton (as well as the ‘national’ team) it feels as if naturally talented riders are once again coming to the fore. The most numerous nation represented in the top 30 on GC outside of the hosts, Columbian riders took the KOM (Arredondo) as well as four stage wins (Quintana two, Uran and Arredondo one each). Quintana has made the leap in little over a year from a climber to grand tour winner and is the strongest evidence yet of a cleaner doping free peloton.