Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

So we’re already a quarter way through the 2016 season and I’m feeling pretty conscious that I haven’t written a great deal about everything that’s taken place since Tirreno and Paris Nice a few weeks back. We’ve had the rivals for this years grand tours line up in the Volta a Catalunya, a couple of semi-classics in Belgium and the first of the monuments; Milan San Remo.  While there are stories to be told about all of these races everything has been overshadowed in the last few days by the death of two riders in separate events last weekend.

On Saturday Belgian rider Daan Myngheer suffered a heart attack after collapsing during that day’s stage of the Criterium International on Corsica. His death was announced on Monday evening just 24 hours after another Belgian Antoine Demoitie died in hospital after being run over (following a crash) by one of the race motos during Gent Wevelgem. Losing both riders is a tragedy but it’s the circumstances surrounding Demoitie’s fatal accident that has caused a wider discussion. Rider safety is a topic that’s been simmering along since last year when there was the first of many incidents where riders came off worse due to altercations with either a race support car or moto. Irony probably isn’t appropriate here but I haven’t read anything that suggests that Demoitie’s accident was avoidable; his team have even released a statement to that effect. Nevertheless it’s all too clear that in a contest between a rider and a car or moto, it’s the guy (or girl) on the bike who’s going to come off worst.

That said I’m not sure what can be done to make things significantly safer. Right now with things feeling pretty raw it’s easy to forget that the potential risks for riders from cars, motos and everything else from dogs without leads to street furniture have existed for years. While crashes like the one that took out several riders at last years Pais Vasco could easily have been prevented (poorly signed road furniture caused that one), it’s hard to see how every potential risk can be eliminated. I won’t disagree that some potential risks could be mitigated but in the week before Demoitie’s accident the same commentators who mourned his loss were bemoaning the lack of moto camera feeds in another race. I’m not diminishing what’s happened; I just don’t think there are quick or easy solutions.

Racing a bike has enough risk and potential injurious outcomes without riders wondering if they’re likely to be hit by an errant vehicle from the race caravan. The really enlightened solutions probably won’t emerge in the immediate aftermath of these two tragic deaths.

Milan San Remo 2016

My season so far hasn’t involved seeing many races live and Milan San Remo was no exception really. The race calendar has a bit of an odd feel and MSR taking place on a Saturday was about as weird as it’s got so far in 2016. There’s always the highlights package but with the way races have concertina’d over the last few weeks tracking down the stage you missed a couple of days before often means that it has disappeared from the airwaves before you have a chance to see it.

Milan San Remo might be the longest of the monuments but just like Fleche Wallone you can miss 95% of it and still see the key action. That’s how it was for me this year as I got in from work with 2.5km to go and got to see the most important part of the race. There were quite a few riders who wanted to after the race but let’s not take anything away from Arnaud Demare for a second or two as this may well turn out to be the biggest win of his career. For the last year of so Demare has done a good impression of the rider that Marc Madiot shouldn’t have kept on the roster at FDJ instead of Nacer Bouhanni. It’s a massive win for Demare and while it might have been by default it’s part of an impressive 2016 palmares for FDJ with Thibaut Pinot winning the Criterium International too.

I’m inclined to think that of the two we will see more of Pinot in 2016. Demare was in the right place after Fernando Gaviria crashed in the final few hundred metres and then Bouhanni suffered a mechanical. Demare was also run very close by Sky’s Ben Swift who must have been wishing that the cameraman who spotted Vincenzo Nibali getting a tow during the Vuelta has been present. It emerged the following day that Demare had (allegedly) taken a rather long sticky bottle after he got stuck behind a crash earlier in the race. Lack of an video pretty much did for that particular suggestion and Demare keeps his win and the first French victory in a monument for many years.

Volta a Catalunya 2016

The big guns emerged from hibernation for the latest week long stage race on the calendar. Nairo Quintana was the eventual winner with Alberto Contador finishing 7 seconds down with Dan Martin and Richie Porte on the same time a further 10 seconds behind (Martin taking the final podium spot by virtue of a stage win).

The opening two stages and race lead were taken by Bouhanni before the race started pointing uphill and Martin took over the leaders jersey. Stage 4 was won from the break but behind Quintana was making his move and the top four remained the same, albeit with Porte and Martin swapping 3rd and 4th place by the end of the week.

Chris Froome was taking part too but he finished the race 46 seconds down on Quintana in 8th place. It was a low key return for Froome although none of the riders likely to contest the Tour looked to be in outstanding form; Fabio Aru was a further minute down on Froome and outside the top ten on GC.

I didn’t see enough of the race (again) to draw too many conclusions.  I guess I would have expected more from Froome. It says quite a lot that his teammates were given the chance to freelance during the week with Wout Poels taking another stage win this year. The Sky squad had the look of a possible grand tour line up too with Poels and Thomas as the key lieutenants and Kiryenka back in favour.

Richie Porte was in touch but not quite there as per Paris Nice. I’m still not quite sure what he’ll do at BMC; for me Tejay looks the stronger of the two. Will he find the extra to land a grand tour this year? I suspect not, but I do think he could be in touch of the podium.

On the whole I haven’t had that sense of any one grand tour rider looking head and shoulders above everyone else this year. That could just be down to not having seem much racing, but there isn’t anything leaping out at me from the race results either. With no one targeting the Giro / Tour double this year I think it will be a few more weeks before I start to get a feel for who’s in for a big year.

E3 and Gent Wevelgem

There’s many an article devoted to Sky’s lack of success in the classics but they are developing into fairly habitual winners of the smaller cobbled classics. Ian Stannard took two excellent victories in Het Nieuwsblad in 2014/15 and new signing Michael Kwiatowski retained the E3 title that Geraint Thomas won last year.

Kwiatowski looks like he has been hired to assume the Thomas role in Sky’s classics squad although Thomas will return for the Ronde this weekend. As someone who tipped Kwiatowski as a potential grand tour contender a couple of years ago I’m a little bit disappointed if it turns out that Sky want to use him in the one day races primarily. It isn’t as if he looks as if he isn’t enjoying himself, I just think there’s more to him as a rider.

Before his bike failed in E3 Fabian Cancellara looked back to his best and he had been right in touch with things during Milan San Remo too. Compare and contrast this with Tom Boonen who, sadly, just doesn’t seem to have the legs (dare I say it) anymore. Now i’m a Boonen fan, more so than Cancellara so it hurts me to say it, but I think he’s unlikely to figure this weekend in Flanders or Roubaix the week after. I want to be wrong, but if anyone is going to bow out on a high it’s Cancellara in my view.

Peter Sagan was the ‘eternal second’ in E3 and it was interesting to hear the stat that suggested that he tended to fade in races where he had needed to work hard to make a break stick. Sagan was part of a breakaway again in Gent Wevelgem but he kept his head and earned his first win in world championship colours.

I was quite surprised to read that Etixx are the winningest team in 2016 so far. The problem as the article on INNRG mentioned was that the victories racked up so far weren’t in the key home market. While some of the teams new signings have looked impressive and delivered some good results Marcel Kittel has gone off the boil a little. He was narrowly beaten at the 3 Days of De Panne today and will need to get back on the top step soon to stop the rot.

Gent Wevelgem was my favourite one day race last year and I was disappointed to find that it was missing from the Eurosport schedules on Sunday. The good news was that the new ‘Bike’ channel on Sky had picked it up. Bike showed Het Nieuwsblad live and will be picking up a few other events. It’s not such a great picture without HD but it’s pretty imaginative programming to pick up the feed for races that might not otherwise be shown in the UK.

My plan at the start of the year was to take in the last day of De Panne as it’s a double stage and an fairly easy day trip for me from here. Changing jobs and just having more on my plate in 2016 sent that idea in the long grass and I won’t be seeing the Ronde live for the first time in 3 years either. Under the circumstances these are first world problems really, so I won’t complain and I’ll enjoy the highlights and raise a glass to Antoine and Daan who really should be there too.

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