Heading for the hills in the low countries – VCSE’s Racing Digest #3

Amstel Gold

First up Amstel Gold. The race has traditionally finished at the top of the Cauberg, but aping last years World Championships the line has moved to a kilometre or so along a nondescript straight section of Dutch A road including that staple of the town planner a mini roundabout. Whether or not the race benefits or even needs the change is questionable. However it does alter the dynamic of the race and potentially opens up the field of potential winners.

Roman Kreuziger
Roman Kreuziger (Photo credit: hadche)

Philippe Gilbert’s breakaway on the Cauberg at the World’s gave him the winning advantage and he was heavily trailed as a potential winner of the race, perhaps even to repeat his 2011 record of wins in all three Ardennes classics. Gilbert had been absent from the Ronde after succumbing to a virus after this years snow affected Milan San Remo and used the Tour of the Basque country to prepare for this week.

The breakaway at Amstel which included Garmin’s Johann Van Summeren and Mikel Astarloza of Euskatel. Euskatel had been abject at their home tour. It hardly looks good when you are one of the weakest links in the pro tour and a rider you have dropped animates most of the stages and wins the KOM jersey. Astarloza looked like he was making a point on behalf of the team and at takes some credit for being the last of the original group to get caught.

With the distance to go in the race at this point it should have been time for the peloton to start getting into position for the final climbs. BMC for Gilbert, Movistar for Alejandro Valverde (or even Nairo Quintana) and Astana last years winners with Enrico Gasparotto couldn’t or wouldn’t get organised but even as the race entered the final lap the eventual winner and how the race would be won wasn’t obvious.

A number of riders were now pinging off the front but these looked more like tactical efforts rather than genuine attempts to go for victory. Riders bitched about who would or wouldn’t take their turn on the front of the little groups that formed.

Watching the final moments unfold it wasn’t clear whether Roman Kreuziger’s solo away from the breakaway group was an opportunistic dig or the realisation that he could get away and perhaps even stay away from his rivals. Whatever, Kreuziger looked in great shape. Ryder Hesjedal who did a huge pull to get up to the break presciently summed up the chances of catching Kreuziger with the way he shook his head when he realised that since he had gapped the main group that Kreuziger had ridden off into the distance.

Gilbert was probably always going to attack on the Cauberg. Closest rival was Valverde who looked content to follow Gilbert’s wheel up the climb, he in turn stalked by Simon Gerrans the Omega rider adept at snatching a result this way. By the time these three reached the summit Kreuziger was already on his way to victory and able to ease up as he approached the line. For Gilbert it was clearly win or nothing as he sat up on the line to allow Valverde and Gerrans take the podium places.

Reaction to Kreuzigers win was a mixture of surprise and a feeling that maybe, finally, his talent had shown itself. Ironically Kreuziger had ridden for last years winners Astana before joining Saxo Bank this year.

Fleche Wallone 

And so to Belgium for the Fleche Wallone. Phillipe Gilbert was being touted for this one too. Last years victor Joaquin Rodriguez had fallen at Amstel but a rapidly improving prognosis saw him take the start.

Rather like Milan San Remo where the joke goes that the neutral zone lasts for 280 kilometres until the Poggio, Fleche Wallone didn’t come to life until the final climb of the Mur de Huy. BMC had done a better job of controlling the race but as the Mur approached Gilbert was pretty much unsupported.

Carlos Betancur from AG2R who had been nerfed out of a stage win in the Basque country a couple of weeks ago attacked early and put a big gap between himself and the group that stayed as the hardest section was passed. Gilbert realising it was now or never, responded although whether this was because he realised Betancur was a genuine threat or the presence of Peter Sagan alongside him wasn’t clear. Sagan blew up pretty much immediately and Gilbert soon followed him, seeming to acknowledge today wasn’t his day (again).

Betancur approaching the line was running out of legs as Dani Moreno (Katusha) began to ride clear of the field and overhaul second place man Sergio Henao of Sky. Maybe Moreno was feeling super strong up the Mur or maybe Rodrigeuz, aware that he didn’t have the legs gave him the nod. Moreno’s surge to the line was irresistible , too much for Betancur who expired at the last to hand second place to Henao. Getting pipped by Henao, the rider who beat him up in Spain probably didn’t improve Betancur’s mood as he reflected on the merits of attacking early against pro tour riders.

Nevertheless Betancur is a prospect and a potentially astute signing for AG2R as a rider who could potentially breakaway on the mountain stages at this years grand tours. For Moreno, like Kreuziger earlier in the week it’s the biggest win of his career.. so far.

Giro de Trentino 

What would probably normally be a ‘B’ team outing for the peloton through what seems like the cream of Italy’s hydro-electric infrastructure was supposedly going to be enlivened by the presence of Bradley Wiggins using the race as warm up for next weekends start in the Giro proper. Wiggins was joined by such other notables as Cadel Evans and Tirreno Adriatico winner Vincenzo Nibali. The scene was set for a contest in bragging rights, or was it?

Unlike their somewhat lacklustre performances in the classics Sky can be relied upon to set the pace at the front in stage races. Day one at Trentino saw a split stage with a team time trial making up the latter of the days racing. Whether by accident or design Sky didn’t ride and the rest of the peloton didn’t get orgainised. Result? The breakaway was allowed to stay away and with only four days racing to follow the possibility of a (relative) unknown winning was becoming the nightmare scenario for organisers and media alike.

If not Sky’s then certainly Wiggins frustration was revealed on the podium after Sky took the team time trial at a gallop pulling back a minute on the GC going into day 2. Maxime Bouet of AG2R rode into the leaders jersey on the second day and was defending just under a 4 minute advantage over Nibali as the race entered its final day with the queen stage to Sega di Ala.

Typical of many an Italian (if not Spanish) mountain stage the switchbacks up the climb increased to 20% in places but those settling back to enjoy a battle between Wiggins watching the power meter and Nibali putting in little digs to try to force an advantage were disappointed when Wiggins Di2 failed and the recalcitrant Pinerello was thrown against the cliff. While his mechanics were thanking their deity that the bike had something solid to hit rather than being pitched over the side of the mountain Wiggins set off sans SRM on a replacement bike.

While it’s known that even the pro teams account for every single item and will only discard a piece of kit if it is genuinely a write off it was surprising to see that Sky did not equip the replacement mounts with a power meter. This isn’t actually unusual within the peloton, but for team like Sky who seem pretty much a slave to how many watts they can churn out it seems like a bit of an oversight.

With Wiggins out of the picture it was left to Nibali and one time doper Mauro Santambrogio of Vini Fantini to fight it out for the stage win and potentially the overall GC. Santambrogio had been in the mix at Tirreno too and is certainly one of the strongest climbers in the pro-conti field. Nibali prevailed over the worst of the ramps and was able to time trial to the line.

For Bouet it was a question of whether he could make it to the line within 4 minutes of Nibali’s time. Neutrals couldn’t help but cheer him on to what would be by far the biggest result of his career to date. There was a sense that Bouet realised before the line that he hadn’t done enough but against the quality of field that turned up in the Trentino his podium place is certainly no disgrace.

Would Wiggins have beaten Nibali without his mechanical? VCSE suspects not. While Wiggins looks stronger than he did against the sudden accelerations that Nibali employ’s like teammate Chris Froome he looks less at ease on the steepest ramps. When Sky can control the race they look imperious but if the other teams can keep riders in hand to animate things it’s hard to see Wiggins coming up with a different result to this one against Nibali.

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