Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Froome dogged by doping questions

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome looked the strongest of the pre-race quartet of favourites for this years Tour de France going into the first rest day. The yellow jersey had survived a potentially risky week of classics lite stages and if anything done better than just survive even if some of the time gained on rivals was as a result of their misfortune. If anyone looked like cracking it was 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali who has suffered the ignominy of having his attacks ignored by Sky so much time he has lost. Alberto Contador found that he couldn’t follow Froome’s wheel as early as stage 3 climbing the Mur de Huy. Only Nairo Quintana has seemed able to go toe to toe with Froome; Movistar employing Alejandro Valverde as a very attacking domestique deluxe has at least ensured there’s a semblance that this year is not over yet.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – simultaneously avoiding piss wielding fans while answering doping questions

The risk for anyone describing Froome’s performance and daring to use a superlative has become the narrative for this years Tour. Just as in 2013  Froome’s performances have been accompanied by noises off about whether or not said performances have been achieved legally. It’s certainly ironic, given what we learned about the team in the off season, that Vincenzo Nibali’s 2014 victory received nothing like as much vitriol. I have a theory about this.

Froome and Sky have already effectively negated any possibility in a change in the outcome of this years race, such is his superiority over the rest of the field. Because he has ‘killed’ the race it’s inevitable that people want to know how it’s been done. Froome is dominant; his rivals appear unable to respond; the GC becomes a battle for second place and into the vacuum come the doping questions. Here’s another irony. When Froome was losing ground to Alberto Contador in last year’s Vuelta did anyone ask any doping questions then? So perhaps it’s about the rider and maybe the team too?

Let’s start with Froome. As a commited member of Team Wiggo I have never really warmed to him but I have massive respect for his performances. He still looks awful to me on his bike and maybe that’s another reason why he attracts the questions. In a sport and a country where they have a word for smoothness on a bike; souplesse, Froome is the souplesse antichrist. But should winning ugly mean that the performances should be doubted? The answer of course is ‘no’ but Froome has made the odd remark (as recently as Sunday) that adds fuel to the never ending debate. If I have a problem with Froome and the doping questions it’s this; undisclosed asthma and the use of TUE’s. I covered the subject in enough posts before but the asthma / TUE thing has provided enough smoke to allow the doping conspiracy theorists a pretty big bonfire that certainly won’t abate if Froome retains his lead and wins the Tour.

Which leads us on to his team. I felt the Sky selected a really interesting team for this years Tour. The make up of the team has a really strong British core and this seems to have engendered a bit of a bunker mentality from the team that trickles down to the predominantly British fans that support the team. I get that answering what appears to be the same question again and again becomes wearing after two weeks but this is what Sky signed up for when the entered the sport in 2010. It’s 100% down to the stated aim of winning clean that subliminally sets such a high bar for the team in the eyes of cycling fans as a whole. It’s almost as if with any other team there’s an expectation that they could be using PED’s. But with Sky things seem turned upside down in that if they say they’re going to win clean their performance is compared to teams that we tacitly set lower standards for and QED Sky must be doping.

This week the debate has evolved into how someone can use Froome’s power data to ‘prove’ he’s doping verses Froome releasing his data to ‘prove’ he isn’t. It’s all pretty unedifying stuff and I can only hope that Froome’s rivals can come up with something to animate the race this week otherwise the narrative will continue to be centred around does he or doesn’t he?

Based on what we have seen so far I’m not convinced that Froome can be challenged however. Quintana seems the rider most likely at this point but no one has really put in an attack that they have managed to make stick or to shake off Froome’s key lieutenants; Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas. Thomas has been man of the match so far for me. The versatility shown be the Welshman in navigating his team leader through the tricky opening stages and then often being the last man standing on the climbs has been superb.

Away from the circus surrounding Froome I was cheered by MTN Quhbeka taking their maiden Tour stage win through Steve Cummings. Whether or not his victory topped the team taking the KOM jersey earlier in the race doesn’t really matter. The team have thoroughly deserved their wild card.

So we go into the mountains again. I’m hoping we’ll have some racing to talk about at the end of it.

Unhealthy connections

Tour de France 2015 – First Rest Day 

I had planned to write a short(ish) post ahead of the second full week of this year’s Tour on the speculation (confirmed by the rider himself yesterday) that Richie Porte would leave Team Sky at the end of the season. Ivan Basso opening the Tinkoff press conference with the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer pushed possible Porte moves off the metaphorical VCSE ‘front page’.

Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso

Getting the Basso announcement more or less hot off the press on my timeline I was disconcerted by my own (initial) reluctance to ‘say’ something on my own feeds. My immediate reaction, born out of my closest family having suffered was empathetic. No one deserves to suffer with this disease. Then I started to wonder. Basso is a rider with a ‘past’, part of the generation of pro cyclists that ‘competed’ when the doping arms race was at it’s height. How long would it be before people started to join the dots between today’s news; Basso; cancer and Lance. Having seen the very dignified way that he handled the press conference I’m glad that I didn’t think for too long about putting out my own (very small) message of support for Ivan Basso.

The dots have been joined however. It’s perhaps only been 5% of the commentary, but it’s out there. If Lance’s cancer was caused by doping then could the same be true for Basso? The aptly named ‘Tin Foil Hat’ brigade thought that this was the story today. There has been a LOT written about Lance, his cancer and his doping. There has been a lot written about whether or not the former was brought about by the latter. I don’t think I have actually read anything conclusive in the many iterations of the Lance Armstrong morality tales that litter my bookshelf.

I am something of a contrarian about doping. As much as I support a ban for anyone caught using PED’s I would equally advocate that it’s possible for a rider to return to the sport following said ban. I am more exercised by the misuse of TUE’s (an ongoing issue in the peloton) that I am about a confessed (and one hopes ex) doper riding and racing. Ivan Basso might represent the worst of pro cycling as someone who doped but there is (for me at least) much to be said for his subsequent repentance. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have been given the chance of a couple more years ‘in the sun’ with Tinkoff. Today’s news may bring about retirement sooner than expected but I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Ivan Basso on his bike.

Forza Ivan! 

Continue reading Unhealthy connections

So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Tour de France 2015

Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – in yellow after stage 3

My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.

The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind  did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.

Continue reading So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Tour de France 2015

Why bother shelling out a tenner for 228 pages of official guide when you can get the VCSE lowdown on this years Tour for nothing? 

Last year we had Yorkshire. Everyone said it was going to be good; even me (although I added a typically English caveat; weather permitting). And the sun did shine and it seemed like anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in riding a bike decided to find a spot by the roadside. I know, I was there. The grandest of Grand Departs has spawned its own three day stage race and made Utrecht’s job of hosting this years edition twice as hard. So why then as a (proud) Brit am I feeling a greater sense of anticipation ahead of this year’s Tour than last?

There might be another British* rider in yellow besides Chris Froome

While a lot of Brit fans were waiting to see who would be backing Froome over the next three weeks here in Essex we were looking to see if ‘our’ World Tour rider was going to France (via Holland). It’s easy to forget that Alex Dowsett’s ‘day job’, when he’s not breaking hour records is riding for Movistar. In the last couple of weeks the more eagle eyed among you might have spotted him on the flatter stages at Dauphine and the Route du Sud providing close protection for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. I still suspect Dowsett smarted from his omission from the Movistar squad for last years race that would have passed through some very familiar Essex roads on stage 3. Poor health was cited at the time but other than the obvious home ties last year it was harder to see why he would have been selected. This year is a completely different story. Besides the ‘obvious’ item on his 2015 palmares, Dowsett took overall at the Bayern Rundfahrt and he’s coming off another national TT championship win. The opening stage prologue isn’t quite the quintessential ‘ten’ of the Brit club scene but I think Movistar have picked him to have a go at taking the jersey. It won’t be easy but other than Giant’s Tom Dumoulin I can’t think of another rider that stage 1 couldn’t have been better scripted for.

A wide open green jersey / points competition

ASO have tweaked the points allocation again this year and that should suit the ‘pure’ sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. The big blonde German elephant in the room though is the missing Marcel Kittel. Is it illness? Lack of form? There have even been suggestions that Kittel has succumbed to the cyclist’s illness; depression. Whatever the reason, the rider that looked set to dominate the bunch gallops is absent and that means that the metaphorical sprinters ‘crown’ is up for grabs. Of course Kittel’s absence doesn’t automatically mean that Cavendish will reclaim the number one spot. There’s as much depth among the fast men as there is in this years GC field.

Let’s start with Alexander Kristoff. I posed the question of who could beat the Katusha rider after he claimed his second monument of his career by winning the Ronde earlier in the season. He’s been kept under wraps in the last few weeks (he didn’t contest his home championships) but you have to think he’s going to be tough to beat as it has felt at times as if all Kristoff has to do is turn up to a race in order to win. Not unlike a Mark Cavendish of old in fact. Cav looks like he’s in good touch too though; he rode an extremely untypical but nevertheless inspired solo effort in last weekends nationals in Lincoln. He looks as if he is peaking at the perfect time and isn’t July a good time to get your mojo back?

Another rider who could lay claim to that is Peter Sagan. A rider who has had to endure a stream of motivational messages that his team owner shares with the wider social media audience and possibly the worst national champs kit of recent years could be forgiven for crumbling under the weight of a $15M salary and expectation in the classics. Sagan took the GC along with bagging a stage win or so at this years Tour of California going head to head with Cavendish and I would expect Sagan to have to take the points where he has the advantage over Cavendish (on primes etc.) if he’s serious about another green jersey.

While it has been enjoyable to see Sagan in a place where he’s feeling like popping wheelies again I think this could be Kristoff’s year. I’m not as sure about the final showcase in Paris though; that one i’m giving to Cav.

Enough already.. what about the GC?

Dowsett in yellow. Kristoff v Cav. Mere aperitif’s to the main course that is this years GC battle. Last year we had Contador v Froome. This year we can add Nairo Quintana to the mix and that’s before we even mention last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali. I’m sure someone has got the ‘stat’ that says when these four last raced against one another (together). Me? Haven’t a clue, but whenever that was a lot has changed not least that each rider is now a grand tour winner.

Continue reading It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon

Velothon Wales 2015

Two years of failure to get a lottery place for Ride London obviously left me susceptible to Mrs VCSE’s invitation to join her on the previously unheard of Velothon Wales. I didn’t even bother with an entry to Ride London this year as it seems that anyone who vaguely fits the profile of MAMIL plodder living near London is pretty much guaranteed not to get a place (don’t they realise that they could easily substitute the ‘middle aged’ for ‘old’ with VCSE?)

Mr and Mrs VCSE
Mr and Mrs VCSE

Mrs VCSE is known for going for a swim before getting on her bike and then (inexplicably) deciding that the best way to relax after riding is to go for a run. In a flagrant disregard of rule #42 my wife’s chosen recreational pastime is Triathlon and we would be joining a whole bunch of rule breakers from her club in Cardiff.

I can’t remember when exactly I assented to coming along for the ride but i’m pretty certain it was in the off season when i’m generally less concerned with where i’m riding and for how long than with; “Exactly how many base layers will I need under my rain jacket today?”. I recall mention of 15,000 riders and closed roads but other than the occasional reminder to ‘save the date’ for the 14th June the Velothon didn’t figure that largely in my thoughts. Things started to get serious after a route change was announced increasing the distance to 140km. My recollections of what came first is pretty hazy but it may also have been around this time that I became aware that our route would also take in climbs of the Tumble and Caerphilly Mountain. Both climbs have featured in the Tour of Britain; the Tumble most recently in 2014 where it was categorized as a Cat 1 summit finish. Having seen World Tour riders get dropped and popped on both climbs on the ToB I was in no doubt that getting the decidedly non World Tour VCSE carcass over the top would be quite a challenge.

We warmed up for the main event with ten days with our friends Paul and Jan Simpson in the ancient volcanic landscape between Murcia and Alicante. Paul and Jan are Great Britain Ironman age groupers and we hooked up with them again in May after staying at their rental villa last September. A little less than 500km and no ride with less than 1800′ of climbing was the best possible preparation when the most challenging climb in North West Flanders (Essex) is just over 300′ high. We took in this particular ‘bump’ North Hill a few times the week before the Velothon and I did a couple of shorter rides in the days leading up to weekend (Mrs VCSE would probably describe this as ‘tapering’).

On the run in to the event I wasn’t too sure what to expect. There was quite a lot of ‘noise’ about the road closures from the locals accompanied by suggestions that the organisers had not done a great job of communicating said closures to said locals. The visions I had of angry Welsh folk ignoring closed road signs and hurling abuse at me were soon dispelled when we got in to Cardiff city centre to sign on. The expo had some decent stalls and anyone needing a last minute addition to their kit was being catered for. They say that a fool and his (or her) money is easily parted so needless to say Mrs VCSE and I came away with a new jersey (me) and gilet (her) despite bringing kit with us that would have satisfied every possible climatic condition.

We had figured out that the ride from our hotel to the start pens would add another 10km to our total and perhaps a little ambitiously pledged to keep our pedals turning when we finished to ensure we clocked 100 miles for the day. With an early start time we were on the road at 7.00am which ensured traffic free roads even where they hadn’t officially been closed. Pretty much the only people we saw were other riders; the numbers swelling as the roads converged on Cardiff Castle.

I can claim at least 15 seconds of fame thanks to my Photobomb of former Welsh rugby international Colin Charvis as he set off at the same time as our group. The route quickly left the city centre and we found ourselves riding on the kind of roads that are the general preserve of articulated lorries and white vans through a series of industrial estates. The smoothest lines followed the trucks wide wheel tracks the curb sides providing a home for debris that was already claiming plenty of puncture victims. The back roads that carried us between Cardiff and Newport weren’t all that dissimilar to those along the Thames ‘delta’ near VCSE’s home town, our progress witnessed by a few bored looking ponies (there must be some kind of bylaw that insists on the presence of a collection of some tired out old nags to keep the grass down). At this point our speed was pretty good around 18-20mph and we didn’t have any kind of incline to tackle until we had left Newport and started to head inland.

For all the talk of protests from locals outraged that roads should be closed to ensure the safety of 15,000 cyclists I didn’t see any examples on the ride. I mention this now purely because the only reported incident was some tacks left on the road near the Celtic Manor golf course. Perhaps the irony was lost on the person doing it; didn’t they know that cycling is the new golf? While hundreds of us waited for the road to clear someone commented that we had probably been stopped to ensure we didn’t put the golfers on the nearby green off their putts. This interlude had been preceded by a sharp little climb that was easily in double digit grades and some riders had already been forced to walk; a prediction of what was ahead perhaps?

Continue reading Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon

Bring me the casquette of Bradley Wiggins

Wiggins raises the hour mark

It’s an indication of Sir Bradley Wiggins fame outside of cycling circles that in breaking the hour record on Sunday he was on the front page of virtually all of the national press the following day. Alex Dowsett, who had set the previous mark only five weeks ago had barely warranted a mention. This is less about the merits of Dowsett’s short lived tenure as record holder, more so Wiggins place in the firmament of British public life as a ‘character'; immensely talented but not without (forgivable) flaws. Wiggins has made cycling ‘cool’ in a way that only Wiggins can with a strong sense of style and a nod to the history and traditions of the sport.

Sir Brad - will go for Olympic gold again in 2016
Sir Brad – will go for Olympic gold again in 2016

Sunday’s record attempt wasn’t Wiggins first appearance in the understated Rapha kit of his eponymous new team. There was a cameo at the Tour de Yorkshire a few weeks ago with all the air of a reluctantly fulfilled contractual obligation. This was the real thing though and there’s always a feeling of anticipation when Wiggins sets about a ‘target’. No one was in much doubt beforehand that Wiggins would set a new record; all of the discussion revolved around by how much. There was even a suggestion that he had got close to 55 kilometres during a practice run. Without any other leading riders announcing an attempt so far, the consensus was for a distance that could stand as a landmark for the foreseeable future.

In the event Wiggins did not quite reach (the potentially iconic) 55km but he finished comfortably ahead of Dowsett. There was much talk of atmospheric pressures in the velodrome in the aftermath but Wiggins appeared happy with the outcome. Dowsett can afford to be philosophical too. As he went back to his day job on domestique duties for Alejandro Valverde at the Criterium du Dauphine Wiggins was bestowing his wish that Dowsett should go for the record again.

Dowsett has time on his side and it’s entirely possible that Rohan Dennis could have another go too. Dennis is at the Dauphine with Dowsett and while i’m writing this has just taken the race lead following today’s Team Time Trial. The missing elephants in the hour record room are Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara. Martin is in France too while Cancellara continues his rehabilitation following his accident in E3 during the classics. Neither has shown much interest in an attempt on the hour record so far but I would suggest Martin as the more likely of the two, perhaps waiting until the end of the season to do so. I suspect Cancellara’s priorities to remain focused on the classics; the records in his sights to take more wins in the Ronde and at Roubaix than any other rider.

Wiggins will now focus on the track in the run up to his swan song at the 2016 Rio Olympics where he will race the team pursuit. He’s announced his intention to contest the individual event at the world championships next year today alongside the team event. The main challenge for him will be whether or not Team GB can peak in time for another Olympic cycle, something that could be doubtful after this years results.

I didn’t see all of the coverage of the Wiggins hour on Sunday so I missed whether or not there was actually any footage of Johan Bruyneel shown. Bruyneel, who went out of his way to say that he brought his tickets to the event, wasn’t the only (let’s say) controversial attendee. Pat McQuaid was there too. Whether or not he was a VIP guest, Bruyneel’s presence fired up the Tin Hat Twitterati to start making 2+2=5. I’m not even sure that Wiggins was aware that Bruyneel was there but he looked genuinely star struck when he was congratulated by Miguel Indurain interrupting the UCI presentation to him to go over to the former record holder. There’s a real kinship apparent between the two; Wiggins went out of his way to acknowledge a token from ‘Big Mig’ when he won the 2012 Tour.

On a final (sartorial) note I am now firmly in the ‘yes’ camp as far as the Wiggins team kit goes. Rapha must have been doing a roaring trade on Sunday judging by the amount of Wiggins casquettes I saw in the crowd. Up until now I wasn’t too sure whether or not I liked the jersey but unsurprisingly Wiggins himself makes it look good. No stranger to a bit of custom kit you can’t help thinking that he knows exactly how far to push the design envelope and as a result comes up with something that looks distinctly different and at the same time understated. Obviously as a good disciple of the Velominati I’m not about to start sporting a Wiggins jersey but you can put me down for a casquette.

Criterium du Dauphine

Here’s a thing; live coverage of the Dauphine on ITV4 and Eurosport. I have been a bit thrown by the early start and finishes so far but it will be a handy primer for discovering who’s in form ahead of the Tour. Things don’t get ‘lumpy’ until Thursday although tomorrows stage has a few cat 3 and 4 climbs.

Watching the ITV coverage today (is the plan to drop Phil and Paul finally now that we have Ned and Dave?) the suggestion was that Sky had endured a near disaster in losing 35 seconds on the TTT. I think that’s over stating things a little bit (do the ratings need boosting with a little bit of dramatic licence?). We will have a better idea of Chris Froome’s form and perhaps just as importantly mindset after three days in the mountains. Of course Froome hasn’t raced much this year and hasn’t defended his titles from last year’s warm up events successfully either. It is important that he puts down some markers here but for me Froome’s chances in the 2015 Tour depend more on how he negotiates a tricky first week in this year’s race.

There’s a strong GC field with only Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana missing from the likely contenders for next month. The aforementioned Rohan Dennis could be an interesting watch after going into the leaders jersey. Tejay Van Gardaren has only just left Cadel Evans in the twilight home for former GC riders and here comes another rival for team leader in the shape of the former hour record holder. A week long race is the right kind of length for Dennis but it’s surely unlikely he will be given his chance here.

Pretty much all of the world tour teams have a GC rider who is capable of winning the event so it will be interesting to see if it does turn out to be one the Tour favourites or if someone might sneak up on the rails like last year’s defending champion Andrew Talansky.

Wiggins Hour Record photo by Andrew Last on Flickr 

Now for the Tour – VCSE wraps up the 2015 Giro

Giro d’Italia 2015 

While the final outcome never looked in doubt, the final week of the 2015 edition of the Giro d’Italia served up some epic stages as the race wound its way from the Dolomites to the Alpes via the Italian lakes.

Alberto Contador - Now for the Tour?
Alberto Contador – Now for the Tour?

Alberto Contador took the GC without relinquishing his grip on the Maglia Rosa he had worn since stage 5 (other than the briefest of loans to Fabio Aru). Contador had taken a lead of 2.35 into the final week over Aru but the 42 seconds that the Astana rider took back by the end of the race didn’t begin to tell the story of the mixed fortunes for the GC contenders as week 3 progressed.

In my previous post covering the first two weeks of the race I highlighted the potential risks for Contador if Astana were able to isolate him on the mountain stages that would dominate the final week. Aru and his teammate (this year’s Aru if you like) Mikel Landa had been ably supported by the rest of the Astana line up whereas Contador had often gone from having his Tinkoff domestiques alongside him one minute and gone the next. It’s been a theme of this year’s Giro for the GC riders to lose and gain time based on another’s misfortune and as the peloton regrouped after the rest day for a stage featuring the Mortirolo as its centrepiece Contador was about to be tested. It’s a bit of an unwritten rule that the race leader won’t be attacked if he suffers a mechanical although Contador has ‘form’ for ignoring this particular convention*. When he punctured ahead of the Mortirolo Astana attacked and Contador found himself at the bottom of the climb isolated and losing time to Aru. Contador leaves the Giro for the next leg of his grand tour ‘double’ without a stage win but his ride over the Mortirolo to overhaul Aru and end his hopes of taking his maiden grand tour victory was surely one of the most memorable performances in stage racing. Aru hadn’t ever looked like he could capitalise on the collective strength Astana held over Tinkoff but that shouldn’t diminish Contador’s ride. Fuelled perhaps by anger that he had been attacked, whatever Contador was on clearly worked as he passed Aru and began to put time into him. The tongue in cheek suggestion that Landa could become the GC hope for Astana looked to be solidifying into a genuine consideration as he road clear in the final km’s to take his second stage win in a row. As he leapfrogged Aru on GC, Contador had increased his lead by more than four minutes.

Contador increased his lead further on stage 18, won in a fine breakaway by Philippe Gilbert as people began to speculate just how much time might Aru lose on the final two stages so out of sorts did he seem.  Contador described passing Aru and seeing he had “..an ugly face” (the literal translation from Spanish) so great was his suffering on the climbs. Now Astana gave the outward appearance of turning to Landa but there was a sting in the tail for Contador as Aru went from seemingly a beaten man to world beater in the space of 24 hours. Would Contador have lost as much time (without the GC ever being seriously in doubt) if he had the support of a teammate on the last two stages? Perhaps not, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if there had been one more mountain stage after Sestriere on Saturday.

Continue reading Now for the Tour – VCSE wraps up the 2015 Giro

A Giro minute – Giro week 1 and 2 round up

Giro d’Italia 2015 

Apre le deluge: suddenly Richie Porte’s two minute time penalty for taking a wheel from Simon Clarke doesn’t seem so important. The (now erstwhile) Sky team leaders result on yesterday’s stage to Madonna di Campiglio had echoes of the collapse in form that he suffered when he assumed Chris Froome’s role in last years Tour. On the day after the long TT stage, where it had been widely assumed (beforehand) that he would at least prove to be a contender if not the dominant rider (in the event losing time) Porte was shelled from the peloton on the penultimate climb and lost the best part of half an hour to Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru.

This years winner? - Alberto  Contador
This years winner? – Alberto Contador

Porte had started the stage after some speculation that he could have withdrawn from the Giro after a lacklustre performance in the TT and another morale sapping time loss the previous day when he had been caught up in an accident just outside 3km to go and was forced to ride in on a teammates bike that was at least two sizes too big. There was talk of a knee injury and the suggestion that pulling out of the race now would give him time to prepare for this years Tour where he would be back on super-domestique duties for Froome. Whatever the motive behind the decision for Porte to line up at the start yesterday it’s hard to come up with a valid reason for him to stay in the race now. Sky had already promoted Leopold Konig into their GC leadership role ahead of the stage after the Czech had leapfrogged Porte into the top 10 and it is difficult to see that he can offer much support with the collapse in form appearing to be as much mental as physical (if indeed there is any physical issue).

Porte’s fall from grace has been as surprising as it has been swift. Less than a week ago he had looked well placed; in a podium spot and only 22 seconds down on Contador. Losing time due to a puncture towards the end of stage 10 to the leaders need not have been that injurious but the two minute penalty conferred for taking a wheel from fellow Australian (but crucially not a teammate) Clarke must have been the first crack in the Porte edifice that was crumbling by the weekend. With race wins in Paris Nice and Trentino and plenty of race miles under his belt Porte was many people’s favourite going into the Giro (mine included) and his demise has raised rather more questions than; “Can he win a grand tour?”. He wasn’t the only pre-race favourite to lose time on stage 13 but the reaction of the other rider involved is in sharp contrast to Porte’s misery.

Alberto Contador hadn’t given too many hints as to what we could expect of him in the Giro. His programme ahead of the race had provided one or two cameos of the dominant rider of previous years but in some ways it was only the fact that he is Alberto Contador that made you think he would be a factor in the first part of his double grand tour target in 2015. Contador has had his own share of misfortune too. The risks of an outstretched arm, snapping photos of the onrushing peloton are well known to the riders in 2015 and Contador was the last in a line of dominos brought down by an amateur photographer as he approached the line on stage 6. A dislocated shoulder might have spelt the end of his race and arguably his year but Contador continued and it’s almost as if the injury never occured now.

If anything Contador has seemed at most risk from his isolation in the leading group when the road has gone skywards. Half of the summit finishes in this year’s race have been dealt with now, albeit with the hardest climbs still to come but the ageing Tinkoff domestiques have been found wanting while Aru has often had four or five supporters around him (think: the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ v ‘The Inbetweeners’).But Contador’s strength is Aru’s weakness and the Astana rider hasn’t yet been able to turn his advantage in teammates into time taken from his chief rival. If anything we could be seeing the cracks appearing for Aru too. He took a fortuitous race lead after Contador had been caught up in the same crash that effected Porte on stage 9. Aru wasn’t expected to keep the Maglia Rosa for long in the following day’s TT but he looked shaky on yesterday’s stage with teammate Mikel Landa taking the win and looking the stronger rider of the two. It was probably a bit of mischief making on Contador’s part to suggest this to the media post stage and with Landa a further two minutes behind a change of leadership is perhaps premature. Astana might be able to use an Aru, Landa ‘one-two’ to their advantage in the final week, particularly if Contador is unsupported but at this point it’s difficult to see past El Pistolero for the GC.

Another rider to have fallen by the wayside in this years race is Rigoberto Uran. After podiums in the last two years I expected at least the same from the Etixx rider but he’s another rider that’s looked out of sorts over the last couple of weeks. Uran has suffered with a lack of support on the climbs but he lost a lot of time in the TT (he won the ‘flat’ TT stage in last years race). Might Etixx question whether or not Uran has what it takes to deliver a grand tour result after this Giro? Perhaps, although I think it’s more likely that the team will retrench from their ambitions, focussing more on week long races with the new sensation Julian Alaphilippe.

Outside of the GC battle this year’s Giro has thrown up some interesting stages. I confess that the first week passed me by as I holidayed with the bike in Spain. I missed Orica sharing the Maglia Rosa among three riders during the opening stages and I would have enjoyed seeing Davide Formolo taking his maiden grand tour stage victory. As RCS continue to dredge up ever more spurious reasons to ‘celebrate’ Marco Pantani it’s good to see an Italian rider emerging in a team (Garmin Cannondale) where at least his performances can be believed in.

Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)

So this is my first post for getting on for a month. In previous years I would have written about the Ardennes classics, the Tour of Turkey and would be previewing the Giro about now. There’s even been an extra race added to the calendar with significant interest for British fans with last weekends Tour de Yorkshire. Trouble is I have found it really difficult to find anything good to say about the last month since Roubaix and I am going to try and explain why in this post.

Ardennes Classics

I find it a little hard to get too jazzed about the Ardennes races with the possible exception of Liege Bastogne Liege as they tend to be decided in the final few kilometres and even I can pass on the preceding 90 minutes of live coverage where nothing much will happen. Both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone will have their outcome determined by what happens on their signature climbs; the Cauberg and Mur de Huy respectively. OK the few minutes the riders feint, attack, fade or go clear on the ascents is often exciting but the results this year have been sadly predictable.

Alejandro Valverde
Alejandro Valverde

With the exception of Michael Kwiatowski timing his move to perfection on the finishing straight at Amstel the Ardennes races in 2015 have been about one rider alone; Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was second in Amstel and went one better at both La Fleche midweek and LBL the following Sunday. I have written about Valverde many times and in particular about his public lack of contrition about his ban following Operation Puerto. Interviewed in Pro Cycling this month he remains unwilling to tackle the subject of doping (past and present) and maintains a position that he was banned despite “..his arguments” that the presence of a bag of his blood didn’t indicate wrong doing. Of course it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that because Valverde was banned in 2010 he’s doping now, but it does stick in the throat that the rider who has figured so prominently in this years hilly classics is the poster boy for unrepentant dopers.

Only one other rider featured in the top ten finishers for all three Ardennes races; Etixx Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilppe who was runner up in La Fleche and LBL and 7th in Amstel. Obviously Valverde is a grand tour rider who is capable of hanging with the best of them through the Alps and Dolomites on a three week stage race but to deliver a second place and two wins says he was in the form of his life.. Or something.

So Valverde winning didn’t put me in the greatest of moods to crank out a thousand words extolling the virtues of the Ardennes classics. At least my bad luck was just confined to having to watch him take his victories. Previous LBL winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans didn’t even figure after a crash that took out several key contenders early on during the live feed. Neither rider is having a great season so far with early season injuries and illness getting compounded by these latest mishaps. Kwiatowski’s win in Amstel cements his versatility as a rider although I think he will need to decide if he’s going to be a GC rider or a one day specialist fairly soon as I think he will need to shed some timber if he’s going to become a genuine contender in the grand tours.

Continue reading Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)