Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

There were numerous examples of poor positioning and in a couple of cases this led to Wiggins being caught in the wrong place when an incident took place. For me though the key factor that undid the Wiggins attempt was the loss of Geraint Thomas as that rider lost touch following a crash. It looked like Thomas was set up as the rider to get Wiggins to his jumping off point and despite the heroic efforts of Luke Rowe (who finished strongly in 8th place) and Ian Stannard I think Thomas was missed as the race reached the critical point. As a couple of riders bridged to him and Vandenbergh, Wiggins slowed and the opportunity passed. Wiggins lost Paris Roubaix at that point.

I love the classics and I love Flanders and Roubaix most of all but even I can’t describe this years races as ‘classics’. For me the best classic of the year so far has been Gent Wevelgem as that had drama as the bigger two races had (if i’m honest) a bit of dullness about them. The last few editions of Roubaix have been run in dry conditions although there were some lingering water filled potholes waiting to catch out unwary riders this year. But the race itself wasn’t all that until Wiggins, who had spent most of the race shredding his fans nerves with his apparent inability to get anywhere near the front, attacked. The two key moves that decided the race were the attacks of Greg van Avermaet and John Degenkolb. Degenkolb attacked the way Wiggins probably should have done to bridge over to van Avermaet and his breakaway companion. A couple of other riders caught this group as the ‘stare out’ started in the final kilometres but it was Degenkolb who had the strongest finish to claim his second monument of 2015 (and career). Degenkolb was in tears as he crossed the line and in his post race interviews and the photos released of Wiggins after the race capture the emotional investment that riders who ride Roubaix feel about the race.

John Degenkolb
John Degenkolb

The fact that Wiggins was a factor in a race where plans often fall apart as soon as the flag drops makes his last race for Sky at least a qualified success. I think ultimately I am more disappointed by the way the rider and the team have handled themselves since his Tour win in 2012. We know now that Wiggins never really wanted to ride the Giro in 2013 (he wanted a year off) and Dave Brailsford’s preference for Chris Froome over Wiggins and Froome’s dislike of his rival stymied any opportunity to use the two in concert in 2014. I can’t see any reason why Wiggins wouldn’t want to bow out with another gold medal in the 2016 Olympics but would the route he is taking to do this be quite the same if the rider had been managed differently over the last three years? Wiggins isn’t entirely blameless in this of course. It’s painfully obvious when he isn’t in the mood but when he is on song he’s often unbeatable. Who can say if he could have been a factor if he had been selected for the 2014 Tour when he was arguably Sky’s best rider at the time. Wiggins will always be the first British rider to win the Tour de France and arguably the most versatile cyclist the country has produced. A win today would have just added a little more to that status.

Tour of the Basque Country

The Volta a Pais Vasco always throws up some good stages but this year’s edition began controversially after poor race control led to a horrific accident on stage 1. A set of (removable) bollards left in situ on a stretch of road where the bunch sprint would be in full swing took out a number of riders, notably BMC’s Peter Stetina. The injuries sustained may end some riders seasons and for Stetina it could be even more serious than that (I hope that proves not to be the case). No one wants to see riders injured, particularly in this case as the accident was entirely avoidable. It is difficult to see something like this happening in the Basque Country too as there aren’t many regions as passionate about their cycling. With the UCI in a position to take action against the race and the possibility of teams pursuing action against the organisers also it highlights the way that professional cycling often veers badly into the amateurish.

The race itself was unusual as it was run in pretty much good weather throughout. There were no scenes of a soaked to the skin Caja Rural rider chasing KOM points in 2015. The GC field lacked Froome, Nibali or Contador but the second string were present in Kwiatowski, Rodriguez and Quintana. Races like this are grand tour tune ups and Rodriguez looked like he had the strongest engine with stage wins and the GC taken on the last day. Sky’s Sergio Henao held the leaders jersey for much of the week despite finishing behind Purito on two stages (no, I don’t know why either). He was undone by Rodriguez’s stronger finish in the final stage (uphill) TT. The climbs that featured during the week had the kind of width and gradient that would burn out clutches and it’s a sure sign of difficulty if the peloton ends up walking.

Nairo Quintana looks like he is about 5% short (no pun intended) at the moment but the Movistar squad looks really strong which should bode well for Quintana and Valverde in the three week races. Michael Kwiatowski was in the mix for Etixx and might have gone one better if the climbs had been longer and steadier. Tony Martin’s reinvention as a relentless climbing powerhouse continues (and needs to be seen to be believed). Purito’s win capped a fantastic few weeks for Katusha and the team should go into the grand tours as potentially the most versatile option wise alongside Etixx with both sprint and GC (stage win) options.

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