Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Commonwealth Games cycling

The 20th Commonwealth Games was bookended by its track and road cycling events. With a different mix of events included in comparison to the Olympics there wasn’t quite the same slew of medals seen at London 2012, but that also had a lot to do with the current state of GB track cycling. London was the last hurrah for the riders who had carried the success of the track programme on the shoulders since the beginning of the last decade. Sir Chris Hoy who would see the track events take place in his eponymously named velodrome had originally planned to retire at the games. Victoria Pendleton retired immediately after the London games and was a media presence at the games this time while her sometime nemesis Anna Meares continues to dominate the women’s sprint.

Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games - The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome
Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games – The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome

Part of the decline in British track cycling’s fortunes since London are put down to the four year Olympic cycle that sees the principal riders of the track team peak in line with that event. In other words; forget about the results now and look forward to Rio. So far the fall off in results doesn’t appear to be having an impact on the popularity of the event. Track meets featuring the medal winners from London like Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell are assured to be a sell out, even if the crowd don’t always get the result they want. The cheers for the household names are always the loudest, irrespective of the outcome in their particular event.

The decline has been most keenly felt in the men’s sprint. Hoy had been replaced by the younger Kenny in London, but since he took the Olympic gold his results have been patchy. Physically smaller than Hoy, Kenny wins his races with bike handling and guile more so than outright power, but he’s often struggled to make the final in meets in the last year. He took Silver in Glasgow, losing here to the New Zealand rider Sam Webster. One half of track cycling’s ‘golden couple’ Kenny’s girlfriend Laura Trott took her own Commonwealth gold in the points race, narrowly beating Elinor Barker. In contrast to the emotions shown by some of the home nations medal winners across the Glasgow games Trott had been embroiled in a bit of a social media spat ahead of the games by appearing to downplay the status of the event in comparison to the Olympics. Trott failed to say she had been outright misquoted in the Daily Mail interview, but she didn’t have quite the same profile at these games and seemed happy enough when she thought she had missed out on the winners medal in the immediate aftermath of the points race.

The women’s team pursuit where Trott had won the first of her Olympic golds with teammates Roswell and Dani King was missing in Glasgow. The dominant rider of the trio, Rowsell took the individual gold in a display that cements why she’s the current world champion in the event also.

One of the successful elements of the track programme (the whole games in fact) was the integration of the paralympic events within the schedule. Scotland’s Craig MacLean took two golds with Neil Fachie in the tandem events after returning to the track. MacLean had been one the very early successes of the GB track programme and his return makes you wonder of Hoy could do something similar in Rio. The likelihood is not, but there’s surely some merit in the MacLean model allowing further integration of paralympic sport as well as the prospect of raisin para sports profile yet further. It’s hard to mention MacLean as a rider returning in search of former glories without mentioning Bradley Wiggins having another tilt on the track. Wiggins returned to anchor the men’s team pursuit squad. Working with the team for barely a week before the games Wiggins seemed happy with a silver medal. As with the sprint the benchmark for success is gold in Rio in two years time. Wiggins is also extremely realistic about what can be achieved, he was similarly sanguine about his silver medal in last years world championship time trial defeat to Tony Martin.

Wiggins missed the individual time trial and road race in Glasgow and offered some thinly veiled thoughts on his road racing future in a wide ranging interview the day after the team pursuit. Describing the road scene as “..very political” he confirmed that he no longer expected to lead a team in a grand tour. Out of contract with Sky at the end of this season this admission would appear to limit where Wiggins could go next year, if indeed he does continue to race on the road. He’s been announced as a late call up to Sunday’s Ride London event, an indicator of the fact the Wiggins is box office as far as race organisers (if not Sky) are concerned. With Mark Cavendish choosing to pull out of the race as he continues to recover from his injury sustained at this years Tour it’s possible that Cavendish’s appearance money has been redirected in Wiggins direction.

Back to Wiggins plans for next year, the choice seems to be remaining with Sky on the basis that they will be more likely to accommodate his track plans or to do a (likely) very lucrative one year programme with another team who will bank on his marketability. This could open up any number of teams. With Jens Voigt retiring Trek might see the benefit of providing Wiggins with a birth to defend his Tour of California title and he could be a useful counterpoint to Fabian Cancellara in the classics. VCSE has mentioned BMC in the past, but that seems as unlikely as a move to Orica Greenedge who definitely wouldn’t be supportive of Wiggins building up to the track in Rio where Australia will also be targeting medals. Garmin, or whoever Garmin become next season when they hook up with Cannondale as a bike supplier might still be an option but as things stand it’s entirely possible that Wiggins will stay with Sky or even walk away from road cycling altogether. Wiggins retains the capacity to surprise us and whatever he ends up doing it may well be something that no one predicted!

The cycling events on the road took place at the end of the Glasgow games. Emma Pooley, who announced her retirement shortly beforehand took double silver in the time trial and road race. Pooley was within seconds of the gold in the TT, just losing out to Linda Villumsen’s measured performance. Pooley was happy with her silver in the test, but delighted by the same result in the women’s road race. Part of strong team racing for Lizzie Armitstead, Pooley was the point of the spearhead that whittled down the breakaway group into a final medal selection on the road race course around Glasgow city centre. She put in a final attack that no one could cover and when Armitstead overhaulled her was far enough away to ride for silver.

A rider who wears her heart on her sleeve Pooley was in tears as she crossed the line for a medal that she hadn’t expected to win. It was somehow fitting that a rider who has so often ridden tirelessly in support of others should take the silver and it was thoroughly deserved. Armitstead was pleased to take a win in a season where she has too often (in her eyes) finished as the runner up. She was the class of the field on Sunday in difficult conditions.

Alex Dowsett claimed the gold in the men’s TT. Wiggins may not have been present, but there was a very strong field including Australia’s Rohan Dennis who had run Wiggins close in the Tour of California earlier this year. Also in the medals was eventual men’s road race winner Geraint Thomas. Thomas provided a great example of the ‘benefits’ of riding a three week grand tour as preparation for a one off race (see also using the Vuelta as prep for the worlds). Scotland’s David Millar controversially left out of Garmin’s Tour team was an advocate of this kind of preparation and comparing his results with Thomas’ suggested that the theory might have some merit.

The Glasgow course was very similar to the route used for last years national championships. Mark Cavendish had won that event and he was present in DS mode for another Tour absentee Peter Kennaugh riding for the Isle of Man team in the road race. Kennaugh had delivered the perfect one finger salute to his non selection for the Tour by taking a convincing victory in the Tour of Austria. This made Kennaugh a pre-race favourite for the Commonwealth gold but it’s hard to imagine that he hatched a plan with Cavendish to win the race from a first lap breakaway. Nevertheless Kennaugh found himself with a decent gap after attacking after the first kilometre last Sunday and in the absence of any support from the peloton found himself duty bound to ride. Cavendish clearly thought that Kennaugh could win, or maybe just felt that there was no alternative once the rider had built up a few minutes lead in the rain soaked streets.

Two thirds of the race were gone by the time a break (including Thomas) managed to get organised. As they began to erode Kennaugh’s lead it became clear he was cooked. He deserves credit for finishing the race (in the top ten) considering the conditions (his own and the weather) but it wasn’t hard to see the tension in the riders face afterwards. It was certainly a high risk strategy to try and win the way he did and it’s difficult to think that the decision was Kennaugh’s alone. VCSE suspects that the rider would have preferred to drop back when a break failed to emerge in the early laps and that he was overruled by Cavendish.

With Kennaugh out of the running the selection was down to Thomas, Jack Bauer and England’s Scott Thwaites. Thomas had his own share of drama as the kilometres ran down, puncturing and losing much of his lead in the process. Fortunately for the Welshman, Bauer and Thwaites busy with their own battle for silver and bronze and he was able to stay away for a much deserved win. VCSE hasn’t been Thomas’ biggest fan, but he seems to have had a moment of clarity as a result of Sky’s disastrous Tour and seems prepared to ride more for himself when the opportunity presents itself. This can only be good news as far as Sky’s programme outside of the Tour is concerned. Silver for Bauer may be a small consolation for missing out on a stage win at the Tour, but Thwaites would have been delighted with his bronze.

Tour of Poland 2014

One of VCSE’s favourite stage races started on Sunday with the Tour of Poland getting underway in Gdansk. After last years excursion to Italy this years race stays closer to home but it’s delivered it’s normal share of surprises and action. The first four stages should have favoured sprinters (Peter Sagan is a previous winner of the event) but biblical weather involving golf ball sized hailstones and falling trees and an unlikely breakaway win mixed things up nicely before the race started to take in some climbing.

Rafal Majka
Rafal Majka

The current star of the peloton Tinkoff Saxo’s Rafal Majka took stage five on Thursday, but the lead was retained by Omega Pharma Quick Step’s Petr Vakoc. A graduate of the OPQS feeder squad the 22 year old winner of the world university road race and time trial championship this year took stage 2 into Warsaw. Even thought the race has radio’s it looked like at least some of the peloton, in particular Orica’s Michael Matthews, hadn’t realised that there was still someone up the road as they raced around the finishing circuit. Vakoc lost all but a second of his lead on stage five, but it was a brave effort to retain the lead for another day. Majka, the rider who was that single second behind took the win and the overall race lead the following day on a stage where the route appeared to serve no other purpose than to promote the resort hotel of one of the race sponsors. The parcours was interesting enough with the same short steep climb featuring on the loop that was used for the final laps.

Majka is mining an extremely rich seam of form at the moment; ironic for a man that complained of being “..too tired” to race the Tour, when he was given his last minute call up last month. After his success at the Tour, riding his home race as team leader was a given and it wasn’t too much of a surprise to hear that a three year contract extension had also been signed. Despite this the overall win was less predictable with many favouring the stronger time trialling skills of Movistar pairing Benat Intxausti and Jon Izaguirre to overhaul Majka on the final day. Both riders finished better than Majka on the stage, but he was close enough to win the overall by 8 seconds. The Tour of Poland isn’t alone in holding a test as it’s final stage and at least the local interest ensured that it didn’t feel like an anticlimax.

So what now for Majka? His future is assured with Tinkoff Saxo thanks to the contract extension and he gives the team options with Alberto Contador’s best days if not over, at least likely to decline. Majka has been focused on the Giro in the last couple of seasons (remember he only rode the Tour this year as a late replacement for Roman Kreuziger) and VCSE expects that he will lead Tinkoff at this race next year, rather like the way Movistar have ‘protected’ Nairo Quintana. If Majka can repeat Quintana’s success of this year at next years Giro then a tilt at the Tour can only follow. This has implications for Peter Sagan, the seasons worst kept transfer ‘secret’ was finally announced this week. Sagan will want stage wins to go with another green jersey at next years Tour, but if Majka becomes the Tinkoff leader in 2016 what will happen to Sagan’s ambitions then? It’s entirely possible that Sagan may have different priorities in two years time of course; he’s supposedly joined Tinkoff to enjoy better support in the classics. It’s an interesting situation though; what to do when you invest so much in a marquee rider only to find that you have someone equally talented (albeit for different reasons) in the team already. All of this supposes that Majka will continue his current upward trajectory. Sagan is the more proven rider perhaps, although he has still to deliver that first monument and is rapidly becoming a leper as far as riders being prepared to work with him in the latter stages of a race. Tinkoff may well desire a return to their glory years in the classics with Cancellara, but grand tour wins are priceless.

A final Tour of Poland observation. Last years sponsorship inflatables seem to have reproduced over the last year and they proliferate the race route sometimes even stealing the show by breaking free of their moorings in an attempt to add to the hazards the peloton have faced this week. The mushrooms (or should that be lightbulbs?) have also spawned a wide range of free headgear that have adorned the crowds at the finish line. If you’re in the market for a dayglo stetson advertising an eastern European power generator you know where to come.

Ride London 2014

The second running of the upgraded Ride London ‘classic’ took place as the Tour of Poland was coming to an end. There was a criterium held for the women’s professional peloton as prelude to the men’s race on Sunday. While the men would race over an extended version of the 100 mile route the Ride London sportive would use, the women were reduced to laps of the finishing straight and the other side of St James’ Park. There were questions asked about this when the event was held for the first time last year and the best ‘excuse’ VCSE can think of is that racing the women over the same route on the same day would probably preclude the sportive taking place. This may or may not be a problem though. If the aim is to hold a mass participation event for cycling that can compare to the London Marathon, surely all that needs to happen is that the professional races go off first, followed by the amateurs taking part in the sportive. No one seems to mind that the elite athletes finish their races ahead of the fun and charity runners in the Marathon, so this shouldn’t be a problem for the cyclists. It might actually allow for an increase in numbers too.

In the meantime the likes of Marianne Vos and Lizzie Armitstead have to make do with the current Saturday night crit.  Obviously, any race is better than no race but from the VCSE vantage point it doesn’t feel like the best way to showcase the excitement of the women’s racing scene. At least the Ride London event was a bit more interesting to watch than La Course and the shorter laps led to some exciting tactical racing. Vos with only one rider in support was undone by the numbers of Wiggle Honda in the end, Giorgia Bronzini taking the win and it was fantastic to see national crit champ Eileen Roe in third.

Sunday’s men’s race was run in all weathers and over a tougher parcours than last year. The race organisers wanted to engineer things that a bunch sprint wasn’t nailed on and the new route along with some hard riding from Sky meant that they got what they wished for. Net App Endura had three riders in the penultimate selection, but an attack by the most experienced rider in the group, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert left the pro-conti team’s threesome stranded.

Gilbert might have looked the favourite at this point but he ran out of inclines to use to his advantage. As the race entered its final kilometres, it looked like it would come down to a two way fight between Gilbert’s erstwhile BMC teammate Adam Blyth and Sky’s Ben Swift. Blyth who has dropped down two divisions this season to ride for British continental outfit NFTO seemed to go too early, but replays showed just how well he timed his sprint. Swift arguably fell foul of doing too much work in the final stages and had a repeat of his national championships disappointment. Swift may rue these missed chances but he has been very consistent in terms of high placings this season and is likely to earn a contract extension.

For Blyth it will be interesting to see if the win will result in a return to the world tour. With so much uncertainty about team’s futures in 2015 it’s possible that there isn’t a berth out there for a rider who struggled at BMC. This isn’t to say this would be the case in another team, but it might make more sense to rider and team to stick together and use the success as a possible move up to pro-conti level in the next year or so. Part of the problem for British teams and riders is that the UK scene revolves around shorter races with very few events like Ride London held during the year. While some UK based teams appear to have firm foundations, success doesn’t always equal longevity. Last years Tour Series champions UK Youth are no more this year and the lack of closed road stage racing in Britain closes off at least one particular avenue for both teams and riders.

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