Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

Continue reading Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Kan anyone katch Kristoff?

Tour of Flanders 2015

This year’s classics season is being turned on its head by a couple of unlikely teams; Sky and Katusha. Alexander Kristoff added another win for Katusha and his second monument victory today by winning the Ronde. Kristoff’s relatively straightforward success adds to Luca Paolini’s win in Gent Wevelgem last week and his own second place in Milan San Remo to place Katusha top of the teams in this year’s spring classics.

Alexander Kristoff winner Tour des Fjords 2 stage
Alexander Kristoff

After winning Milan San Remo the previous year Kristoff was naturally going to be one of the favourites for that race again this year but he hasn’t been seen as a rider who would figure as highly in the cobbled classics. He had been near the sharp end of the peloton in E3 and Gent Wevelgem but his three stage wins and taking the GC in this weeks 3 Days of De Panne made him a red hot tip for the Ronde. Kristoff was beginning to show his sprinting chops last year and he ran Marcel Kittel really close for the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee for the final stage of the Tour. He has is mining a rich vein of form at the moment that just makes the likelihood of him winning a bunch sprint seem like a foregone conclusion. Three stage wins on the relatively benign De Panne parcours didn’t necessarily mean that victory in the Ronde would be easy to come by. Kristoff appeared to realise this; attacking ahead of the final ascents of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg and building a small but ultimately decisive gap to the chasing group.

It could and indeed has been argued that this years spring races are wide open as they lack two principal characters; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen is rapidly running out of time to add to his Flanders and Roubaix totals and like 2013 he’s out of this years races through injury. Unlike 2013 Boonen didn’t even get as far as the early races after his tumble at the back of the pack early on in Paris Nice. Cancellara joined his great rival on the sick list after crashing out of E3 and the rest of the classics season when it was revealed he had fractured vertebrae. Boonen had shown the briefest indicators of form winning Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and animating sections of Roubaix last year but Cancellara has been the rider during the same period winning Flanders twice, Roubaix and E3 along with strong finishes in MSR. A master of hiding his form until it matters the only indication we had of Cancellara’s 2015 form was a high finish behind Kristoff in this years MSR. I can’t help feeling that a fit Fabs would have been a factor today if only because so many of the peloton look to him to decide how they’re going to run their own race.

In E3 the beneficiary of Cancellara’s absence was Sky’s Geraint Thomas. His win in the semi classic has made this Sky’s best classics showing to date and the Welshman was rightly considered a favourite today. It’s a measure of how results have increased the teams confidence that Sky tried to control a lot of the race today. Perhaps unfairly a lot of the mainstream reporting in the UK has centred on Bradley Wiggins who will attempt to win Paris Roubaix next weekend. Wiggins had been in good form on the road and off it in the run up to today with an emphatic victory in the TT stage at De Panne and in interviews where he cited his desire to help Thomas to victory in the Ronde. I’m absolutely certain that this was the Sky strategy with Wiggins planned as the rider to break up the bunch to set up a Thomas win. Unfortunately for Wiggins he slid off early in proceedings and spent the rest of the race at the wrong end of the pack. It will be interesting to see how the events of today impact next weekend. At one point it looked like Wiggins was going to be escorted back to the front by Bernie Eisel who had shepherded him at De Panne but this didn’t come to much. Was Wiggins physically unable to contribute or had he mentally checked out of the race at that point? He was still appearing in shot at the back of the peloton late into the race and it’s true that he needed a race at this distance to prepare for Roubaix. If Wiggins did decide that he wasn’t going to contribute today (for whatever reason) it could have implications for how much support he can expect next week. Sky went from having riders in support of Thomas at the front to suddenly having just Luke Rowe (who has been a super domestique in the classics this year). If Wiggins had stayed on the bike it’s possible that Thomas could have had something in reserve for the final k’s, maybe Wiggins would have been part of a three man break with Kristoff and Niki Terpstra. Let’s just take things at face value for a moment and say that Wiggins just came off and that was his day done. If there’s nothing more to it than that it does show how so much of one day racing is down to luck. Wiggins will need more of that commodity if he’s going to go out on a high in Roubaix’s velodrome next weekend.

Niki Terpstra has been Etixx Quick Step’s mister consistency with a podium place today to go with last weeks in Gent Wevelgem. For Etixx though this has been a pretty forgettable classics campaign. Zdenek Stybar’s win in Strade Bianche and Cavendish taking KBK are the only bright spots where the majority of discussion has been around how the team have failed to capitalise on having numbers in the final selection. Terpstra will defend his Paris Roubaix title next weekend and it will be a last throw of the dice for Etixx before the team turns its attention to the grand tours.

Terpstra probably should have gone long today if he wanted to beat Kristoff but my sense is that he went with him to attempt to cover for Stybar. Kristoff’s victory, like that of John Degenkolb in MSR, marks him as more than just a sprinter. With Thor Hushovd’s retirement last year (a party that Kristoff spoilt by snatching the win in Thor’s final race) he was always going to be the heir apparent for Hushovd’s ‘hammer’. In winning today Kristoff has demonstrated that he can emulate Hushovd further by being a factor in one day races and on the right course possibly another Scandinavian wearer of the rainbow stripes.

Just a perfect day..

Gent Wevelgem 2015 

Every now and again, often when you least expect it, you get to see a fantastic bike race. Let’s be honest sometimes watching racing can be the equivalent of a mid-table mid week nil nil football match. I stick with it, mostly because I’m a fan and this is my chosen sport. But I also try to watch every race, be it one day or stage of a tour because every now and again cycling delivers something special. I have sat through hours of live coverage on a day that’s promised fireworks only to end up feeling disappointed with the realisation that I could have been out riding my bike rather than watching someone else riding theirs. But then there are days like Sunday. There are days were I count myself lucky that I could see a race like Gent Wevelgem 2015.

And this was an unexpected gem. It was a first for the race being shown live via Eurosport rather than some moody feed off a website. The #HomeofCycling had served up a veritable buffet for the armchair fan this week with the Volta Catalunya, E3 Harelbeke and the Criterium International all showing in addition to Sunday’s offering. This was going to involve some juggling with the remote control and the DVR to make sure that I didn’t miss any of the action. It also required a bit of thought about what to watch live; the crit a like final stage up and over Montjuic in the Volta or go straight into GW. As things worked out (read as the clocks going forward) I ended up missing all but the last 10km of the Volta anyway and there was still plenty of racing left to do in Flanders.

And talk about the perfect time to tune in. As the peloton clawed its way forward up an arrow straight tree lined road I watched echelons beginning to form as riders who were unlucky enough to find themselves isolated leaned 45 degrees into the wind to try and stay on their bikes. The conditions in Gent Wevelgem are nothing like the whole story of the race but they were a vital factor in the racing that followed adding a mixture of drama, suspense and dare I say it amusement (for me at least). We have already lost some of the main protagonists for the classics due to injury this year and I don’t want to see any riders get (badly) hurt but even some of the riders who fell victim to the wind on Sunday could see the funny side of being blown into ditches from what I saw on social media today.

The difficulty that some riders had trying to stay in touch blew the peloton apart at this point. We got a glimpse of Mark Cavendish struggling to get back on after a puncture. We didn’t get so much as a mention of Bradley Wiggins who tends to think racing in these kind of conditions is a bit of mugs game. It didn’t take long until for the key elements to detach and set the scene for the next 80 or so kilometres.

Much of the talk as far as Sky’s classics campaign was concerned pre-season had centred on Wiggins targeting Paris Roubaix. As things got underway the team got off to a good start with Ian Stannard repeating in Het Neiuwsblad but things unravelled badly in Milan San Remo. Stand out performer there was Geraint Thomas who destroyed himself to try and set up Ben Swift for the win to no avail. A week later and all of that had changed though. It may have been of click-baiting on my part to suggest that Sky had cocked up their classics campaign but I think the view I advanced that they needed a big result in the forthcoming races was right on the money. It might be splitting hairs to say that Thomas winning E3 on Friday isn’t a big win but as far as Sky’s classics performance is concerned 2015 has become their best showing to date.

Luca Paolini
Luca Paolini

Thomas was in the thick of things again on Sunday, part of a select group that had got away in pursuit of Lotto Soudal’s Jurgen Roelandts. With Thomas were Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh, Roelandt’s Lotto teammate Jens Debusschere, BMC’s Daniel Oss and after jumping across later Niki Terpstra and Luca Paolini.

Every now and again the host broadcaster would briefly cut back to the peloton if only to confirm that they hadn’t all decided to call it a day, but the bulk of the camera work was focused on Roelandts battling against the elements alone and the machinations of the chasing group as Debusschere enjoyed a free ride and Etixx teammates Terpstra and Vandenbergh tried to work out a winning strategy. Roelandts cushion to his pursuers evaporated as he blew up under a combination of the final climbs and a head wind and with around 20kms to go the race was back together.

Over the same climbs Oss faded and fellow Italian Paolini who had been the last rider to make it across looked as if he was losing the tow as well. Out of all of the riders in the group however Paolini is blessed with the kind of smarts that will make him a formidable DS in the future. Thomas looked as if he was just holding on, understandably after his win less than 48 hours earlier and Vanmarcke and Debusschere didn’t look as if they had much fight left in them either. Thus Etixx found themselves in a similar position to one they have found themselves in a few times this season; a numerical advantage but seemingly no idea of how to make it count. Whether or not Paolini sensed the indecision or just decided to go for it I don’t know, but he attacked and then spent the remainder of the race in the big ring while Terpstra and Vandenbergh wondered what had happened.

Paolini celebrated ‘his greatest win’ by humbly admitting that he would be back working for Alexander Kristoff in the Ronde next weekend. Terpstra shook his head as he crossed the line, partly in disbelief at how he and his teammate had thrown away a potential victory and (also) no doubt anticipating an almighty bollocking from Patrick Lefevere later that night. Under the circumstances there was no disgrace in finishing third for Thomas. Roelandts, arguably the ‘man of the match’ managed a rueful smile as he beat the peloton home in 7th.

I was completely gripped by Gent Wevelgem to the extent that next Sunday’s Ronde is going to have to been something special for me to rank it above yesterday’s race. Even Mrs VCSE was sucked in by the drama and it takes a lot to drag her away from her smartphone. Unpredictable conditions, a plucky underdog, an engrossing tactical battle and a worthy and likeable winner. This race had it all. If you didn’t manage to see it Eurosport will probably show a highlights package of sorts up to the start of the 3 days of De Panne on Tuesday afternoon. After that seek it out on YouTube. You will be glad that you did.

* feature image is the  key Kemmelberg  climb in Gent Wevelgem  from a previous year’s race 

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