A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

Spring classics opening weekend

After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.

The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.

Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.

Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.

Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*

Will they or won’t they? – Astana to ‘lose’ World Tour licence

A little doping related sidebar to the opening classics weekend was the news that BMC** had suspended Greg van Avermaet after it was revealed that he was under scrutiny for his connection to a doctor implicated in doping. All of this was against a back drop of the possibility that (following an independent investigation) Astana would lose its World Tour licence due to the smog of doping allegations (recent & historic) surrounding the team.

This has been done in far greater detail elsewhere but I have been wondering about the arguments for and against Astana’s potential ban. Inevitably it all comes down to money. There are strongly held views that stripping Astana of their licence is the right thing to do as (surely) ‘something should be done’ if cycling is to demonstrate that is has changed. I’m down with that to an extent in that preventing the current Tour champion from racing (for his current team) sends out a completely different message to (say) the blind eye shown to Tour winners in the past. There’s a potentially lucrative financial upside to this approach too; assuming that there are lots of sponsors waiting in the wings to see if cycling is a safe haven for their brand reputation.

However, that’s the bit that could be harder to quantify. While new sponsors have come into the sport this year, there are plenty who have left and losing another team at the highest level (no matter how ‘deserving’ they are for omission) won’t be good news in the immediate short term.

The UCI’s approach to the situation seems like the right one so far. If an independent investigation has concluded that Astana have a case to answer it’s hard to see that any appeal by the team could be successful. If Vino and co fight for their licence in the face of independent scrutiny it just makes the team look more guilty. The likelihood is that the team has deep enough pockets to shuffle off stage for a year, but there is a huge question as to whether they could retain their top talent like Nibali and Fabio Aru, plus newly signed riders like Dario Cataldo and Lars Boom. A good agent wouldn’t be doing his or her job for their client if they didn’t insert some kind of clause to extricate said client from a team in this kind of circumstance surely? Certainly teams haven’t had any hesitation in dumping a rider (rightly) under similar situations.

So lets assume for a minute or two that this happens; Nibali signs for (I don’t know.. Lampre) and Astana take their ban. I don’t think that there’s going to be a mass of major sponsors coming into the sport in 2016 because the UCI suspend one team’s licence. The law of unintended consequences could actually mean the reverse happens in the short term with more sponsors exiting as cycling airs its dirty linen again. With the CIRC report also due any day now there is more potential for cycling to appear to be the only professional sport with a drug problem (although clearly that isn’t the case).

The Astana issue needs to be resolved, hopefully in the reasoned way it appears to have been dealt with so far by the UCI but if cycling is going to (continue) to attract sponsors we need be honest about doping, past and (unfortunately) present. There still seems to be a greater number of stories about historical doping verses riders being caught today, but saying that the peloton is ‘the cleanest it has ever been’ is hardly the best tagline for a sport that aspires to be drug free.

* Can Wiggo actually win Roubaix? ** In other BMC related doping news: ex rider Alessandro Ballan can return to racing IF he can find a team after serving HIS ban for doping

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