Here comes the new Jens, same as the old Jens* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #37

Quite a few weeks since the last post wrapping up the Vuelta. It’s not as if there hasn’t been much going on, what with Wiggo’s worlds, the final monument of the season and the final (in the literal sense) Tour of Beijing. There’s a literal and figurative wind down to the racing season in September, certainly post the world championships and that’s true of the ‘site too. Reflecting on the 2014 season it does feel like a bit of an anti climax after the Vuelta. Every grand tour this year has had something to hold the interest and each race delivered a winner worthy of a grand tour victory. The races that followed have all seemed a little bit dull in comparison.

VCSE was taken to task by no less than Rouleur when we ventured the opinion that the womens world championship race wasn’t the most exciting one ever. That might have been tinged with disappointment for Lizzie Armitsead losing a race that looked like hers to win, but from VCSE’s armchair at least the Commenwealth women’s road race had a lot more going for it in comparison. So all in all, everything has felt a little jaded and now that planning a ride has started to involve thinking about rain jackets and lights things blog wise may also go into wind down mode also. There may yet be some kind of end of season review and of course it’s always possible that a story will develop over the off season that provokes a paragraph or two. One of the plans at this point last year was to write about the stay in France around the first couple of weeks of the Tour. That post failed to materialise, but may yet see the light of day in a comparison piece with the time recently spent cycling in Spain. There’s also some long overdue product reviews and following the collapse of our T shirt provider last year, the VCSE apparell brand may yet return. In the meantime, some thoughts on Jens, Brad, Dan and the this years top cycling nation..

Jen’s Voigt is the new ‘new’ hour record holder

In and around the post Vuelta season wind down was the first of a supposed series of attempts at breaking the hour record. Newly retired Jens Voigt had been quietly preparing for his tilt at ‘the hour’ and was finding the time to fit it in before a pre-planned charity ride in the UK that was scheduled to take place just 48 hours later. Here was a rider who if he didn’t appear to have the cerebral qualities a record attempt required, would definitely have the heart for the job. There were large dollops of goodwill to accompany him as well, after all Voigt is a rider famed more for his attacking style, rather than the smoothness that is typical of the strongest testers in the peloton like (Tony) Martin and co (although Voigt is a previous GP des Nations winner).

Jens - what else is there to say?
Jens – what else is there to say?

This was going to be the first go at the hour record since the UCI had clarified (if not outright changed) the rules governing the event earlier this year. Prototype bike designs and equally prototype riding positions were long since banned, but the new ruling went further and created a groundswell of possible record attempts not least because riders would be on something that was recognisably bike shaped. Voigt didn’t appear to be riding a TT machine that differed too much from the kind of thing he would have been riding at the Tour in July this year, save for the now obligatory Jensie custom paint job.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that he made it all look rather easy. This was a seat of the skinsuit, will he, won’t he record. From the gun if anything Voigt might have been going a bit too quickly to sustain a record breaking pace. From a few laps in though it was all rather relaxed, metronomic lap times that barely varied and put him on track to not just squeeze over the line with seconds to spare, but exceed 50km for the hour quite easily. Post the record, talk inevitably turned to the sort of distance that we could expect from a Wiggins or Martin. If Voigt could make 51km look relatively easy, surely one of the favourites could go further. Is 60km possible?

For Voigt his record may well be short lived. Martin may feel the need to fill the rainbow striped gap in his wardrobe with the cloak of a raised record during the off season. Wiggins may add it to his list of targets ahead of the 2016 Olympics. This probably won’t matter to Voigt that much. He has enjoyed quite a valedictory year and the hour is the cherry on the cake. Say, he had managed to stay away during his solo break during the US Pro Challenge. Would anyone bar the hardest of hard core fans have remembered a stage win there in five years time compared to Jens Voigt’s place as the first of latest generation of hour record breakers?

Wiggins wins world title

Another rider falling into the category of someone you want to see do well, even if you’re not sure they will was Bradley Wiggins in the TT world championship. With only a prologue sized stage in the Tour of Britain to point to as a guide to form Wiggins faced off against Tony Martin for the individual TT. It’s certainly the case that Wiggins has looked better this year, with the rider admitting at various times that he felt he was in at least as good condition as his Olympic and Tour winning year of 2012. With the exception of his non-selection for this years Tour, Wiggins has approached pretty much every event that he wanted to enter in the mood to win and by winning his first ever road based world championship Wiggins would,  if only be accident be Sky’s biggest success story in a year the team would probably rather forget. Wiggins felt the course favoured him and Martin was coming off two grand tours, but you only had to look at the German’s body language on the podium to work out that this wasn’t just an off day for the rider who had taken the title four times previously.

While those of us watching on television could sense that a Wiggins victory was on the cards, the rider embellished his legend afterwards by claiming that he hadn’t received a time check until the final 5km of the race. Some of the suspense for the armchair fans was removed by the ‘improvement’ provided by the UCI who gave GPS based time checks over pretty much the whole of the course. The greatest risk to Wiggins seemed likely to be the technical downhill section that began the final 10k of the route, but while he lost a few seconds to Martin here the result was never really in doubt.

Afterwards, Wiggins used his post race interview to make some veiled remarks about his Tour non-selection. This obviously still rankles and after missing out on a successful defence of his ToB title, the rainbow jersey provided an even better metaphorical ‘finger’ to his employer. All of that said however it looks as if Wiggins will remain at Sky next year, at least until after Paris Roubaix or possibly the Tour of California. With his sights firmly set on returning to the track in 2016, there is the year in between to negotiate and the current Sky fudge is to create a ‘development team’ that will have Wiggins as its figurehead. This would certainly remove any lingering questions over Tour selection, although Wiggins himself has suggested that he has no ambitions to ride another one.

The development team suggestion is a messy, if pragmatic solution to the Wiggins ‘problem’. It also would provide a berth for some of the younger riders on the squad and for those emerging from the British Cycling programme. Sky remain wholly committed to Chris Froome as their number one rider and their acquisitions for next year point towards assembling a line up with the emphasis on established talent rather than British potential. Having a team racing in the lower tiers could ensure some presence (and appearance money) at some of the races that Sky have tended to avoid while providing a place on a team for neo pros who would have previously worked the apprenticeship on the Death Star. The sense is (at least based on the noises coming out of the worlds) that the deal is done bar the details (and money?) with Wiggins dropping hints about wearing the rainbow jersey at national TT’s next year. For Sky, being able to push the Wiggins issue to one side would be no bad thing. Other teams have made up ground on them this year and there are a new riders emerging behind the established talent at teams like Astana (Aru) and Tinkoff (Majka) that puts pressure on Sky to find their own heir to the throne. Of course, Froome and erstwhile ‘rider most likely to..’ Richie Porte may return in 2015 stronger and potentially dominant but the fact remains that the other teams seem to get more of kick sticking it to the Sky boys than they do to any other teams.

Poland; home of the next grand tour winner? 

Michael Kwiatowski has bookended his season very nicely by winning the world championships (his biggest win early this season was at Strade Bianche). Not only was this years worlds’ venue Ponferrada difficult to get to, it looked as if there wasn’t a huge amount of tarmac to choose from for the parcours with the road races and TT routes sharing the same roads and at least one climb. Kwiatowski timed his attack in the final stages almost to perfection, even if there was a potential whiff of an ‘epic fail’ as he allowed the pursuing group that included previous winner Philippe Gilbert and race favourite Simon Gerrans to reach him as he celebrated crossing the line.

Kwiatowski’s win rounds off a great season for two of cyclings rising stars who both hail from the same country. While the focus (inevitably) was on Kwiatowski for the traditional first outing for the new world champion in the rainbow stripes at last weeks Giro di Lombardia it could be argued that the Omega Pharma Quick Step star has been eclipsed by his compatriot Rafal Majka in 2014. Clearly this depends on whether or not you think that a semi-classic victory and the world champs trump 5th in the Giro and the KOM jersey and stage wins at this years Tour. If Majka shades it, it’s probably down to the fact that he seems like a more interesting character, although this (once again) is heavily influenced by how someone feels about his winks to the camera and using camera bikes for a Madison style slingshot.

VCSE had speculated about whether or not OPQS needed to sign Rigoberto Uran last year when there was potentially a ready made GC rider already on the books in Kwiatowski. Based on Uran’s under performance this year it’s entirely possible that Kwiatowski may be given his chance to go for GC in 2015, if not in a grand tour (where OPQS often have conflicting aims) then something like a Tirreno Adriatico or Tour de Suisse. It’s the lack of grand tour GC ambitions of the Belgian outfit and the two tour goals of Majka’s Tinkoff team leader Alberto Contador that is likely to curtail any tilt at a three week GC contest for the two riders, at least for the next year or two. Of course, anything can happen on a grand tour and Kwiatowski or (more likely) Majka could get their chance sooner rather than later. While it’s hard to imagine Oleg Tinkoff letting his prize asset go, if Fernando Alonso manages to get around to launching a world tour team Contador is a likely contendor to join a Spanish based and sponsored team of the kind that you imagine Alonso could build.

Poland’s stellar year in terms of rider success ought to be good for unearthing stars of the future too. To use the paper, scissors, stone comparison from earlier; does Majka and Kwiatowski’s 2014 success match that of Bradley Wiggins first Tour de France victory for a Briton as far as inspiring more riders to take up the sport. Perhaps not, but there is a clearer route for up and coming world tour aspirants with a Polish based pro-conti level team (CCC Polstat). The emphasis on criterium style racing in the UK, itself a hangover from the difficulty in staging closed roads events in this country, can be counterproductive if not in unearthing talent than in allowing teams to be competitive when they race on the continent. That much was clear in this years Tour of Britain where it was very difficult for the UK based continental teams (third division effectively) to make an impression. Another raison d’etre for the mooted Wiggins led development team maybe.

It’s ended better than it started

It was great to see Dan Martin take the final monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia, if only so we didn’t have to be subjected to a three-peat from Joaquim Rodriguez. There were other changes this year, with the race being held in good weather for a change and a different route to last year as well. Martin might have seemed the man least likely as the leading group entered the final stages, but he came from the back of the pack at a speed that suggested that Ryder Hesjedal might not have been the only Garmin rider to have a motor on his bike. Martin, who also took the win in today’s stage at the Tour of Beijing to move into 2nd place on GC has salvaged his season with a second monument to go with his Liege Bastogne Liege victory from last year.

Jonathan Vaughters appeared to be touting Martin as a GC rider, but the emphasis seems to have shifted to the Ardennes classics now, even after the riders top ten showing at the Vuelta. There’s something of a changing of the guard going on at Garmin, coinciding with the teams second major merger (following their tie up with Cervelo in 2011) with Cannondale. With David Millar retiring, some of the roster leaving and existing Cannondale riders coming on board there will be a very different look to the team in 2015. Hesjedal already seems to have found his niche; part wingman for Martin (witness today’s stage win and last years LBL), part (and you heard it here first) solo breakaway specialist. Well we do need a new Jens now don’t we?

* with apologies to The Who, but I think Jens and Ryder would dig this one! 

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