So this is my first post for getting on for a month. In previous years I would have written about the Ardennes classics, the Tour of Turkey and would be previewing the Giro about now. There’s even been an extra race added to the calendar with significant interest for British fans with last weekends Tour de Yorkshire. Trouble is I have found it really difficult to find anything good to say about the last month since Roubaix and I am going to try and explain why in this post.
I find it a little hard to get too jazzed about the Ardennes races with the possible exception of Liege Bastogne Liege as they tend to be decided in the final few kilometres and even I can pass on the preceding 90 minutes of live coverage where nothing much will happen. Both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone will have their outcome determined by what happens on their signature climbs; the Cauberg and Mur de Huy respectively. OK the few minutes the riders feint, attack, fade or go clear on the ascents is often exciting but the results this year have been sadly predictable.
With the exception of Michael Kwiatowski timing his move to perfection on the finishing straight at Amstel the Ardennes races in 2015 have been about one rider alone; Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was second in Amstel and went one better at both La Fleche midweek and LBL the following Sunday. I have written about Valverde many times and in particular about his public lack of contrition about his ban following Operation Puerto. Interviewed in Pro Cycling this month he remains unwilling to tackle the subject of doping (past and present) and maintains a position that he was banned despite “..his arguments” that the presence of a bag of his blood didn’t indicate wrong doing. Of course it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that because Valverde was banned in 2010 he’s doping now, but it does stick in the throat that the rider who has figured so prominently in this years hilly classics is the poster boy for unrepentant dopers.
Only one other rider featured in the top ten finishers for all three Ardennes races; Etixx Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilppe who was runner up in La Fleche and LBL and 7th in Amstel. Obviously Valverde is a grand tour rider who is capable of hanging with the best of them through the Alps and Dolomites on a three week stage race but to deliver a second place and two wins says he was in the form of his life.. Or something.
So Valverde winning didn’t put me in the greatest of moods to crank out a thousand words extolling the virtues of the Ardennes classics. At least my bad luck was just confined to having to watch him take his victories. Previous LBL winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans didn’t even figure after a crash that took out several key contenders early on during the live feed. Neither rider is having a great season so far with early season injuries and illness getting compounded by these latest mishaps. Kwiatowski’s win in Amstel cements his versatility as a rider although I think he will need to decide if he’s going to be a GC rider or a one day specialist fairly soon as I think he will need to shed some timber if he’s going to become a genuine contender in the grand tours.
Tour of Turkey
If I wasn’t already turned off by Valverde I then had to put up with the dubious sight of Davide Rebellin leading the GC in the Tour of Turkey. Rebellin at 43 the ‘Father of the Peloton’ rides for Polish outfit CCC. It’s an indication of how compromised Rebellin is that while his team secured a Giro wildcard this year this was with the proviso that Rebellin would not be selected. Ironically Rebellin was also featured in this months Pro Cycling along with the aforementioned Valverde. There was some consolation that Rebellin lost the lead that he had held since winning stage 3 three days later when he was overhauled on GC by Lampre’s Kristijan Durasek on stage 6.
The stage itself was taken by Caja Rural’s Pello Bilbao one of the Spainish squads many ex Euskatel riders and the team had more to celebrate when they took a second stage win on the final day in Istanbul. The rider beaten into second here was Mark Cavendish who enjoyed an otherwise successful prelude to the Giro with three stage wins. Cav was joined in Turkey by Tom Boonen who is attempting to rebuild his season by racing the Giro for the first time in his career. Cavendish who took the points jersey in his last visit will be looking for further wins in the lead up to a showdown with Marcel Kittel in July. He (Cavendish) might be forgiven for wishing that he had faced the 2015 incarnation of Kittel in last years Tour. Lacking fitness and looking quite a few kilos overweight Kittel didn’t even make it to the end of the first day of the Tour de Yorkshire and he faces a struggle to get the race miles in to be ready for the Tour. Cavendish remains fallable though and it’s not a forgone conclusion that he can expect to win every bunch sprint anymore. There’s a definite sense of a changing of the guard as far as the sprinters are concerned. Kittel will be back to his best, but for Cavendish and Andre Greipel (another stage winner in Turkey) you feel that the wins will be harder to come by now.
2015 Giro d’Italia Preview
The main narrative for this years race, to be held entirely on Italian soil is whether or not the Giro will be part one of a grand tour double for Alberto Contador. The rider has talked about the need to approach this dual target differently to how he prepared for the Tour last year. We’ve only seen flashes of the dominant rider from twelve months ago and if anything he has looked a little bit undercooked. More shades of Contador version 2013 than 2014 in fact. Of course all of this could change when the teams line up for the TTT to San Remo on Saturday. Of the two races my money would be on a Contador success in the Giro rather than the Tour as I think that Sky will be pulling out all of the stops for Chris Froome in July and there’s that not insignificant factor of Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali to consider also. Contador faces a real challenge from another Sky rider in the Giro who is arguably in better form than the figurehead Froome.
Richie Porte won the Giro tune up Trentino stage race continuing the rich seam he’s mined so far in 2015. I think Porte is the biggest threat to Contador and as he has led the race in the past I don’t think he will be fazed at the prospect of challenging for the GC this year. It still remains to be seen which Contador turns up and my suspicion is that he will be in top condition but based on current form I would have to go with Porte for the win.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t other contenders for the overall. Rigoberto Uran has finished in the runners up spot for the last two years and while I can see him repeating his podiums I don’t see him going one better in 2015. He’s worked hard again on his TT but I think Uran’s undoing will be the lack of support in the high mountains compared to the other GC outfits. Etixx simply lack the fire power. Fabio Aru came to prominence in last years race and spent the remainder of last year and the off season being talked up as a rival within the team to Vincenzo Nibali. It will be interesting to see if the recent social media spat between Aru and Lotto’s Greg Henderson will effect Aru’s performance (more so than the bio passport irregularities suggested by Henderson anyway).
VCSE’s stages to watch at the 2015 Giro
Stage 8 – Fiuggi to Campitello Matese
Not the first summit finish but the first stage where we’re likely to see the GC contenders emerging. A 30km cat 2 proceeds the final climb where the road reaches 12% in places.
Stage 14 – Treviso to Valdobbiadene
The following weekend and we have a near 60km TT where the GC leaders will attempt to put some time into their rivals before the high mountains of the final week. A poor result here could spell the end of some riders hopes of taking the Maglia Rosa.
Stage 15 – Marostica to Madonna di Campiglio
Scene of Marco Pantani’s 1999 stage win and (no doubt) seeing the rider honoured in some way shape of form again the 2015 incarnation features a cat 2 / 1 aperitif and starter before the main course cat 1 climb to Madonna di Campiglio (actually relatively benign in gradient). Expect a solo win here with my money on Aru.
Stage 16 – Pinzolo to Aprica
Any stage that includes an iconic climb has to worthy of inclusion in the VCSE ‘stages to watch’ and this is no exception. After two second category climbs the peloton climb to Aprica first in one direction before a summit finish from a different approach. Both cat 3 climbs bookend an ascent of the mighty Passo di Mortirolo with it’s 18% gradients to look forward to.
Stage 20 – Saint Vincent to Sestriere
If the previous days triple cat 1 stage hasn’t given us our final GC placings then Saturday’s sole HC climb of the entire Giro will. The Colle delle Finestre averages more than 9% for 18km and nearly half of this will be on unmade roads. Get over that and the riders will face another climb to the finish at Sestriere. When it’s all over we will have our Giro winner for 2015.
Doping 2015 – Astana to van Avermaet
Underpinning my doping related blues of the last month has been the continuing saga of the Astana world tour licence and the will he / won’t he (be banned) speculation surrounding Greg van Avermaet.
After marching us up to the top of the hill in anticipation of Astana losing their world tour status the UCI have pretty much sent us back from whence we came by announcing that the outcome of the independent audit into the Kazakh outfit will result in (almost) zero sanctions. The fact that stories (see the Aru stuff above) continue to rumble about Astana suggest that this particular chapter isn’t over just yet. I have written before about the implications of the team losing world tour status but as the story has developed over the last month or two my frustration is as much with the UCI.
There’s clearly good intentions from Brian Cookson and his team to try and deal with the many questions that remain about doping past and present within cycling but it does feel as if the governing body has shot itself in the foot where Astana are concerned. Was it really sensible to argue for revoking the teams licence if it was never likely that this would actually happen?
There seem to be similarities between the Astana case and the situation with BMC’s Greg van Avermaet. He has been implicated in a investigation into a particular doctor associated with doping. The rider has protested his innocence but his countries cycling federation have publicly stated that they want van Avermaet banned for two years. While all of this goes on his team (who let’s face it have a less than stellar reputation when it comes to association with doping going back to Floyd Landis and beyond) continue to pick him for races (most recently in Yorkshire this weekend).
It all feels a bit Alice through the looking glass that we can have the sight of thousands of people, many of whom will be ‘new’ cycling fans juxtaposed with the sight of a rider who his own country wants to ban racing for the win. Perhaps it’s no stranger than the joyful scenes in Manchester last weekend where Alex Dowsett claimed the hour record. Lest we forget Dowsett’s team leader is Alejandro Valverde.
How the two can be compatible; the new cycling driven by science, technology and hard work alongside the shady and equivocal acknowledgement by riders for past wrongs I’m not entirely sure. While i’m still trying to work that one out it took the unalloyed performance of a local rider tasked with a single goal to get me back to the keyboard. A #perfecthour indeed. Chapeau Alex!