Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “..no better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

Pinot and Bardet and their teams will no doubt feel pressured to ride the Tour again next year and possibly go one better than this, The hope is that wiser heads will prevail and that the riders will be able to challenge for the Giro or Vuelta first. This isn’t to say that these grand tours are easier, but for a French rider on a French team the pressure to perform in their home grand tour must be stifling.

So are we likely to see a homegrown Tour winner anytime soon? Perhaps, although the suspicion would have to be that Dave Brailsford’s suggestion that he might want to win the race with French born rider (Pinot?) would need to happen. It’s hard to see that the French based teams will have the resources to deliver the kind of support needed for what VCSE imagines would be a similar approach to Sky’s first win at the Tour in 2012 with Bradley Wiggins.

Kittel keeps his crown.. just

Marcel Kittel took the ‘other’ victory that mattered the most to him by winning the final stage on the Champs Elysee last Sunday. Kittel’s win wasn’t any easier than the previous year when he announced himself as the hier apparent to Mark Cavendish as King of the Sprinters. The reason for this was twofold. Kittel had struggled through the Vosges, Alps and then Pyrenees and was seen to shake his head in defeat long before the end of stages where we might have expected him to figure.

The second issue was the sheer disorganised nature of Sunday’s stage. Riders attempting breaks and the disintegration of most team’s sprint trains left the win to be contested by some unlikely names and saw Kittel almost beaten to the line by Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. Kittel has shown he can scramble for a race win and he seems to be able to come from even further behind to take victory than Cavendish. Kristoff with stage wins earlier in the race will rue that he didn’t ‘go’ a fraction later but his performances this year will cast him as the rider to take over as Norwegian fan’s favourite from the retiring Thor Hushovd.

It’s hard to say if Cavendish could have beaten Kittel. VCSE suspects no, based on the those fateful few hundred yards into the finish at Harrogate on stage 1. Despite Andre Greipel’s stage win this year it’s beginning to feel like there’s a changing of the guard as far as the sprinters are concerned. Kittel, obviously, will be the man to beat over the next few seasons but feels like it could be the beginning of the end for Cavendish and Greipel. What will be interesting to see will be if there emerges more sprinters in the Kittel mould. The Giant lead out train are so similar in size that it’s sometimes hard to spot Kittel in the crush. The formula is clearly a winning one with the team able to count on regular race wins from riders like John Degenkolb and Luka Mezgec besides Kittel, Degenkolb came close on a few of the stages where Kittel couldn’t last the pace.

Cavendish for all of his expensively assembled lead out seems at a physical disadvantage to his young rival, that even he has admitted publicly. There’s also a growing psychological gap that Cavendish can only deal with by taking some wins away from Kittel. It’s unlikely the two will come together again now until next year, in the meantime it will be interesting to see who Omega Pharma Quick Step and Lotto look at as a potential sprinter to groom. Lotto will possibly go for Tom Van As Broeck from Topsport Vlaanderen but OPQS could move away from a pure sprinter model and settle for the occaisonal win from someone in the Matteo Trentin mould.

VCSE’s winners and losers from the 2014 Tour 

Winners 

1. ASO

The Tour organisers served up a parcours that if anything improved on the previous year’s 100th edition. The Yorkshire Grand Depart enjoyed less than typical English weather and the crowds turned out to such an extent that those behind the event can only have dreamed of. The cobbles of stage 5 and the days in the Vosges served up exciting racing and drama that even the loss of two favourites could not dampen. While next years edition has to start with a prologue to make the best of what’s on offer in Utrecht it’s to be hoped that the rest of the route offers the same opportunities for an interesting race.

2. Tinkoff Saxo

Unlike Sky who clearly didn’t have a plan B, Tinkoff demonstrated what could be acheived in the absence of leader Alberto Contador. Two stage wins and the KOM jersey for Rafal Majka and another breakaway grand tour stage win for Mick Rogers almost made you forget why they had come to the race originally.

3. Vincenzo Nibali

OK, so this is an obvious choice, but the way that Nibali won the Tour was an antidote to the previous two years of high tempo power riding. Nibali showed humilty in his victory that honoured the history of the race. There was also a sense of realism from the Astana team leader, recognising that he had made the best of the circumstances that had removed the two pre race favourites. Would Nibali have won this year if Contador and Froome were present? Perhaps not, but as a rider who demonstrated how to do the cycling equivilent of ‘playing to the whistle’ Nibali was a winner who knew how to ride his luck.

4. Tony Martin

Of course it goes without saying that Martin is a shoe in for pretty much every TT he starts, but the OPQS rider is becoming the master of the long breakaway also with another stage win to add to his earlier victory in Pais Vasco this year. If he wasn’t winning himself Martin was sacrificing himself, most notably in the Vosges in support of riders like Michael Kwiatowski and Trentin. Martin, like Kittel is one of the new generation of German riders who are avowedly anti-doping and it’s this stance and his emergence as a more multi dimensioned rider in the last 18 months that makes him so enjoyable to watch.

5. Lotto

Not for Andre Greipels obligatory sprint victory (likely to come on a stage where his rivals are cooked or disinterested or both) but Tony Gallopin’s day in the Maillot Jaune and stage win a few days later. Lotto had their share of bad luck, losing Greg Henderson early in the race but Gallopin made his own by being in the right place at the right time to take the race lead into Bastille day. His well timed break from the leading group into Oyannax was a joy, not the first time in this Tour that a stage with an expected sprint finish saw an upset.

Losers 

1. Sky

A less than perfect build up that saw an injury effected team miss out on the customary sweep of pre Tour victorys was further dogged by niggling allegations about TUE use. Froome’s crash on a seemingly innocuos bit of N road in northern France left him unable to negotiate the wet roads on stage 5 before the peloton had even reached the first cobbled section. What really put the seal on things was that Richie Porte was obviously not in the kind of condition that would allow him to be a genuine GC contender. This isn’t to say Porte won’t be, but out of all of the pre-race favourites Sky seemed the least able to adapt to the loss of their team leader.

We’ve seen Sky’s  lack of tactical nous for the last couple of years in the Classics and it does look like a strong individual performance is needed when the team are on the back foot. Vasil Kireyenka delivered a stage win after Sergio Henao folded at last years Vuelta, but he doesn’t look as strong in the high  summer temperatures seen in the Alps this year. It’s interesting that Dave Brailsford is hinting at a change of tack next year, if not in personnel then strategy.

2. Pre-race favourites

This years edition of the Tour didn’t suffer from the loss of riders like Froome, Contador and Cavendish in the end, but there’s a sense that crashing out of the race may mean the chance of a much craved victory could have passed. Cavendish has been gifted the chance of claiming the yellow jersey in the opening stage for the last two years. He’s missed out on both occaisions due to accidents, leaving Marcel Kittel to claim the honour he craves so much. Other than a gold medal in the Olympics (famously missed in 2008 and 2012) the only gap in Cavendish’s palmares is the Maillot Jaune and with Kittel’s form and a return to an opening prologue in 2015 it seems like his chance may be gone.

Contador was arguably a stronger contender for the GC than defending champion Froome this year but having suffered a serious knee injury is likely to miss the opportunity to salvage his season in the Vuelta. The question now is whether or not he can return to the Tour in 2015 in the same condition he was in this year. As well as the return of a Froome and a Sky team wanting to reclaim the Tour GC Contador will face Nairo Quintana in next years race. It might well turn out that this year was Contador’s last and best chance to add to his tally of Tour successes.

3. Alejandro Valverde

Just as Alejandro Valverde was usurped in last years Tour by the emergence of Quintana this year’s race ended in disappointment as the Movistar rider was overtaken in the final week by Thibaut Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. Despite a strong early season Valverde was unable to match Contador in Pais Vasco and it was hard to see how he could beat the main contenders over three weeks. A polarising figure in the peloton with his doping past, it seems even he realises that his star is on the wane, suggesting that he no longer expects to be a feature in grand tours after this year.

La Course

Ahead of the final stage we had La Course the response from ASO to a petition organised by riders such as Marianne Vos and Emma Pooley for a return of a women’s Tour de France. Essentially a criterium run around up and down the Champs Elysee the race was intended as a showcase for women’s pro cycling. If that was the intention, securing live transmission of the race was a good start it’s just unfortunate that the circuit is just so dull. The final stage of the Tour is always a bit processional and the action only really takes place when the race enters the final kilometre. As seen in the men’s race the excitement (if any) beforehand comes from the riders who attempt to breakaway, but it’s never that easy to get away when for most of the time you would be in sight of the peloton. In the moment you felt for the commentators who were tasked with trying to talk up what was essentially a pretty dull race, but longer term it’s possible that what should have been a cause for celebration for women’s cycling could prove to be a setback.

This isn’t to say that women don’t merit a platform or indeed a return to the stage race format that ran parralel to the Tour in the seventies and eighties. The problem based on La Course is that one of the selling points was that women’s cycling is exciting (which it is more often than not). Unfortunately, La Course wasn’t exciting at all. This was amplified by the apparent indifference of the people of the roadside, may of whom seemed oblivous to the fact that a race was going on around them.

Whether or not Marianne Vos taking the win is a bad thing is more of a moot point. Vos is clearly the class of the women’s peloton and it’s hard to see why she wouldn’t have targeted the first running or La Course any less than the Women’s Tour from earlier this year. In VCSE’s opinion a Vos victory was no less likely than Kittel’s later the same day. The challenge for the UCI, ASO and the movers and shakers behind the petiton is to deliver something more viewer friendly in the future.

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