Unhealthy connections

Tour de France 2015 – First Rest Day 

I had planned to write a short(ish) post ahead of the second full week of this year’s Tour on the speculation (confirmed by the rider himself yesterday) that Richie Porte would leave Team Sky at the end of the season. Ivan Basso opening the Tinkoff press conference with the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer pushed possible Porte moves off the metaphorical VCSE ‘front page’.

Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso

Getting the Basso announcement more or less hot off the press on my timeline I was disconcerted by my own (initial) reluctance to ‘say’ something on my own feeds. My immediate reaction, born out of my closest family having suffered was empathetic. No one deserves to suffer with this disease. Then I started to wonder. Basso is a rider with a ‘past’, part of the generation of pro cyclists that ‘competed’ when the doping arms race was at it’s height. How long would it be before people started to join the dots between today’s news; Basso; cancer and Lance. Having seen the very dignified way that he handled the press conference I’m glad that I didn’t think for too long about putting out my own (very small) message of support for Ivan Basso.

The dots have been joined however. It’s perhaps only been 5% of the commentary, but it’s out there. If Lance’s cancer was caused by doping then could the same be true for Basso? The aptly named ‘Tin Foil Hat’ brigade thought that this was the story today. There has been a LOT written about Lance, his cancer and his doping. There has been a lot written about whether or not the former was brought about by the latter. I don’t think I have actually read anything conclusive in the many iterations of the Lance Armstrong morality tales that litter my bookshelf.

I am something of a contrarian about doping. As much as I support a ban for anyone caught using PED’s I would equally advocate that it’s possible for a rider to return to the sport following said ban. I am more exercised by the misuse of TUE’s (an ongoing issue in the peloton) that I am about a confessed (and one hopes ex) doper riding and racing. Ivan Basso might represent the worst of pro cycling as someone who doped but there is (for me at least) much to be said for his subsequent repentance. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have been given the chance of a couple more years ‘in the sun’ with Tinkoff. Today’s news may bring about retirement sooner than expected but I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Ivan Basso on his bike.

Forza Ivan! 

Continue reading Unhealthy connections

So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Tour de France 2015

Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – in yellow after stage 3

My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.

The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind  did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.

Continue reading So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

TUE be or not TUE be.. – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

Just as night follows day the winning the Dauphine has become part of the landscape for Sky on their way to winning the Tour a few weeks later. In 2012 it was Bradley Wiggins and a year later Chris Froome. For Froome victory would have been a strong indication of his form ahead of his July target, his race programme for 2014 had been extremely low key so far, although both times he had raced he had won the GC (Oman and Romandie). Backed by a team of domestiques deluxe who would make anyone’s Tour team Froome would be facing off against some of his key rivals for the yellow jersey when the Tour gets underway in Yorkshire and a few pretenders who would be troubling the top ten. Alberto Contador was looking back to his best form of 18 months ago when he captured the Vuelta and Vicenzo Nibali, who while not enjoying the same kind of results would be seen as threat to the Sky rider.

"Your name's not down, you're not coming in" Wiggins and Froome
“Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” Wiggins and Froome

Froome has a teflon like ability to rise above the ‘noise’ that follows the Tour de France champion although he could not avoid the fact that he was a big part of the story ahead of the race. Following the serialisation of his book in the Sunday Times (ghost written by ST journalist David Walsh) which had cherry picked the chapters that focused on the Froome / Wiggins ‘relationship’ (and lack there of), Wiggins had popped up on radio and TV to announce that he wouldn’t be riding the Tour. In itself this was a juicy narrative for the rotters of the press and social media to get stuck into (VCSE pleads guilty; see the previous post). The will he, won’t he selection of Wiggins for the Sky Tour roster was merely an apertif though. First, we had Froome looking vulnerable and falling out of the GC lead he had establish in the stage 1 prologue and then we had a rather messy spat between sections of the (French) press and Sky over a TUE.

For the casual follower of the sport a TUE can be explained as a ‘sick note’ that excuses the rider for using a banned substance if it is necessary to treat a particular condition. So far, so reasonable but TUE’s have a very murky past. It was a false and post dated TUE that Lance Armstrong used to explain the prescence of cortisoids in the ’99 Tour. Ironically and certainly unfortunately for Froome it was the same variety of banned substance that got him into hot water at the Dauphine.

After crossing the line ahead of Contador on stage 2 Froome was given an inhaler. No attempt was made to conceal its use and this is an important point. Sky handled the following furore with the typical cack handedness they display when the aren’t in control of the story (or indeed a race) and this certainly didn’t help the situation. Over the course of the week it emerged that Froome had previously stated he didn’t suffer from asthma, the reason given for the use of the inhaler and some commentators took things off on a tangent suggesting that Sky and their rider were somehow being ‘protected’ by the UCI. Perhaps the most damming criticism came from Walsh who had spent the previous year embedded with the team as well as writing the Froome tome. Walsh felt that Sky were backtracking significantly from the standards they had set for themselves at the team’s inception, that they wouldn’t race a rider that needed a TUE.

Things are so toxic because of Armstrong and the TUE use cannot help but remind people of cycling’s dark recent past. Sky’s whole reason for existence stems from a desire to race and win clean and the story of Froome’s inhaler shouldn’t be seen as history repeating. Much of the reason for this is what subsequently happened at the Dauphine. Over the final two stages of the race Froome lost his place and the leaders yellow jersey to Contador on Saturday and on the final day fell out of the top ten altogether.

Contador, point proven perhaps, lost the lead himself on stage 8 to Garmin’s Andrew Talansky an emotional victor hinting that Garmin may seek to do more than just go for stage wins at the Tour. Besides the collapse of their team leader Sky have a further headache in the loss of form that Richie Porte is going through. Porte has suffered a string of bad luck and non finishes since switching from Paris Nice to Tirreno Adriatico early on in the season. He will go to the Tour but it seems more likely that Froome will be reliant on Euskatel Mikel Nieve as his last man standing. Whether or not Froome will click with Nieve the way he does with Porte remains to be seen and Sky’s jangling nerves won’t have been soothed by Contador’s results with what was pretty much a Tinkoff Saxo B team supporting him.

Another rider dusting himself off after a poor week was Nibali who didn’t look like troubling the podium from the prologue onwards. There are a lot of noises off around Astana at the moment with Nibali and the Italian contingent seemingly at odds with the Kazakh management. It maybe too early for a parting of the ways, but it will take some of the bloody mindedness that Nibali displayed at the 2012 Tour in the face of Sky dominance for him to deliver another podium place in July.

Another young rider emerging with credit was Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman. With Belkin announcing that they are leaving the sport less than a year after coming Kelderman’s fourth place could prove timely. The team may yet survive as bike supplier Bianchi are keen to remain, but this will dependent on finding a title sponsor and results so far this year have been patchy at best. Orica’s Adam Yates delivered another strong finish in sixth, but will probably find himself squeezed into the top 20 or so, assuming the Aussies select him for the Tour. It’s possible they might be teeing up Simon Gerrans for a tilt at the points jersey if he can get over the climbs better than Peter Sagan this year and the Cannondale rider is squeezed out of the sprints by the three way battle between Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel.

Tour de Suisse 2014

The question for fans of Britain’s cycling knight ahead of the Tour de Suisse was would Bradley Wiggins use the race as an opportunity to stick a metaphorical finger up at Team Sky’s management in general and Chris Froome and Dave Brailsford in particular. Having announced that as far as he was concerned that he wouldn’t be part of Froome’s back up at the Tour a win in Switzerland seemed like the perfect risposte to the apparent snub delivered to the 2012 Tour de France winner. That Wiggins chose not to get on the pace, finishing more than 30 seconds down on the opening stage prologue, before losing more time on the subsequent stage and withdrawing from the race early is typical, although not for the reasons some would think.

Wiggins is goal driven and after riding Paris Roubaix and winning the Tour of California his stated aim was ride (in support of Froome) at the Tour. Having summised that he would be surplus to requirements in July Wiggins would not have felt the motivation to demonstrate his form in Switzerland while Froome rode in the Dauphine. The difference between the driven, target in mind Wiggins and the rider whose heart just isn’t in it is palpable and Wiggins was probably grateful in some strange way that the accident he was caught up in while loitering at the back of the peloton provided a platform for him to bow out early.

Some might say that Wiggins was doing the equivlent of taking his ball and going home and there is perhaps something in this. Now it’s clear that Wiggins never wanted to race the Giro last year it does go some way to explain his poor results and showing in the run up to that race. Wiggins may have felt that he deserved inclusion in the Tour team based on (delete as applicable) being a previous Tour winner and with the race starting in Yorkshire, but this ignores the fact that he merits inclusion based on form alone if you look at how he dominated the Tour of California.

The leader for much of the week was Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin who managed to hold on to the leaders jersey right up until the closing kilometres of the final stage. Martin had clung on through two mountain stages without much in the way of riders to support him; OPQS using the race to drill the Cavendish lead out train further ahead of the Tour. Martin took the lead after winning the prologue and cemented things further later in the week with victory in the TT also. He was eventually undone by world champion Rui Costa who is enjoying a better year than his predecessor in the rainbow stripes Philippe Gilbert.

Martin, lacking support, was powerless to stop a large break going away on the final stage that included Costa and he was able to distance his remaining companions in the break to claim victory over Belkin’s Bauke Mollema and IAM’s Mathias Frank who made out the overall podium as well.

With the Tour starting a week on Monday there’s a bit of a hiatus as the teams announce their shortlists and in some cases actual Tour line ups. We’re still waiting for the final Sky group but it seems likely that Wiggins won’t be a part of it with the rider announced as part of the England team for the Commenwealth Games. The party line remains that Wiggins will only be confirmed in terms of actual events if and when he isn’t selected for the Tour by Sky, but with the resurfacing of the fissure between him and Froome and the TUE controversy it seems more likely that Dave Brailsford will not wish to unsettle Froome further by including Wiggins in the squad.

VCSE’s Giro 2014 Preview

The first of this year’s grand tours begins on Friday in Belfast. Unless you’re a resident of the Emerald Isle the 2014 edition of the Giro d’Italia feels a bit low key. Last year’s route promised epic stages with classic climbs like the Stelvio and Gavia and a match up between Vincenzo Nibali racing for his home tour against the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins. As things turned out Wiggins never really offered much of a challenge for the Maglia Rosa and mother nature intervened to curtail or even cancel the marquee stages.

Vincenzo Nibali - Giro 2013 Winner
Vincenzo Nibali – Giro 2013 Winner

There’s been something of a changing of the guard since then with Wiggins pretty much finished as a grand tour GC contender and with Chris Froome how seen as the man to beat Nibabli will not defend his title, choosing instead to race against Froome in the Tour. Giro organisers will miss Nibabli but will somewhat happier if they manage to avoid any positive drug tests this year (even posthumously). Last year’s wild card entry Vini Fantini had questionably included admitted doper Danilo Diluca in their line up and his subsequent positive for EPO suggested that this particular leopard couldn’t change it’s spots.

So this years race lacks much of a narrative outside of the three stages that will take place in Ireland over the coming weekend. The GC contenders aren’t from the first rank (with the possible exception of Joaquim Rodriguez) , but this could actually make for a more interesting race and the chance that the final GC positions could be decided in the final week.

Riders to watch at the 2014 Giro

With Nibali missing Astana have handed the team leadership to Michele Scarponi. He’ll be backed by a decent group of domestiques, but it’s hard to see him as the potential winner. VCSE is surprised to see Scarponi attracting stronger odds than Garmin’s Dan Martin, although this is probably due to Scarponi’s likely consistency which should see him safely inside the top 10. Martin is Garmin’s GC leader for this years race, even though 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal is also present. Jonathan Vaughters wants Martin to step up and show he can be a feature in a three week stage race and the ‘Irishman’ seems to be taking some form into the race. VCSE suspects that Martin will fade early on, but may come back with a big stage win towards the end of the race.

The bookies favourtite is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. The Columbian who swept up a podium place and the KOM and young rider jerseys at last years Tour still has to play second fiddle to Alejandro Valverde in the Spanish sponsored team so he leads at the Giro. The story unravels a little when you remember that Quintana hasn’t done anything much this season. Last year he could point to a stage race win in the Basque country. This year; nothing like that. It feels a little bit like Quintana is being promoted on the back of his results from last year. Undoubtably talented, VCSE just isn’t sure Quintana has the legs this year. He might be a rider that stays out of trouble until the big mountain stages and then come to the fore, but if Quintana doesn’t work it’s hard to see Movistar snatching stage wins the way they did in 2013.

We’ve already mentioned Joaquim Rodriguez who targeted the Giro early in the year in the hope that he could make the step from podium to winner in a grand tour. He’s collected a podium at all three grand tours now and feels that he has unfinished business at the Giro after going so close in 2012. Trouble is he’s carrying an injury from his classics appearances and unless he’s undergone some sort of miracle cure in the last two weeks he isn’t going to figure and might even be an abandon before the race is over. J-Rod isn’t attracting great odds, but the bookies money looks safe based on actual racing.

Another rider who targetted the race early is BMC’s Cadel Evans. Unlike Rodriguez, Evans has form too with a win in the Giro del Trentino in the last few weeks. Evans was a bit of surprise package in last years race, pretty much written off beforehand, but doggedly clinging on in the GC to finish a distant third to Nibabli. In the absence of stronger opposition and supposing VCSE has got it right so far with our predictions Evans should be disappointed if he doesn’t get a repeat appearance on the Giro podium and maybe even go one or two places better than 2013. Last years podium triumvate was rounded out with Rigoberto Uran, then of Sky now of Omega Pharma Quick Step. Subject of the OPQS ‘are we a GC team?’ schizo transfer policy Uran must have thought he had arrived when he joined the team. Unfortunately, for Uran it’s been ‘Mo’money.. mo’ problems’ as his form has dipped and he looks emasculated by Michael Kwiatowski. The saving grace for Uran is that Kwiatowski will race the Tour and Uran will lead in Italy. Can he forget that his team wonder why they spent the money and do something (maybe even remind them why they spent the money in the first place)? It will be interesting to see which Uran turns up on Friday.

There’s a few outsiders to keep a look out for; good bets for the top ten or a stage win or two. Tinkoff Saxo will be led by Nico Roche who came of age in last years Vuelta and who has really grown in stature since joing Bjarne Riis’ team. Roche kept up bravely when the climbs went into double digit inclines in Spain and unless he’s developed an extra gear in the off season he will probably come similarly undone in Italy. He’s a good shout for a medium mountain stage and top ten finish. Leading Roche’s old team AG2R is Domenico Pozzovivo an Italian in a French team, a possible KOM or stage winner and a likely top ten contender.

Last years points jersey was taken by Mark Cavendish, giving him a points victory in each of the grand tours. As with the Tour the points jersey in the Giro is not a shoe in for a sprinter and many expected Cavendish to abandon his attempt rather than take on the highest climbs. The fact that his nearest rival for the Maglia Rosso was Evans indicates how hard Cavendish had to work, right up until the final day, to win. It’s less likely that a sprinter will claim the prize this year unless Marcel Kittel decides that any Cav can do, he can do also. Rather like the GC, the remainder of the sprint pack are of the second rank, although Elia Viviani’s recent wins in Turkey suggest that he could do damage. Doing damage, if not actually winning anything the two wheel equivilant of hand grenades with their pins removed are FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni and Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari.

VCSE’s Giro 2014 GC Tips 

1. Quintana 2. Evans 3. Uran 

Stages to watch at the 2014 Giro 

Stage 3 – Armagh to Dublin 

OK so this stage is proceeded by another sprint stage but when the race crosses the border into the south we’ll see how much the Giro has really been taken to Irish hearts. This is stage to be watched as much for the crowds as it will be for the actual result. Kittel could claim the Maglia Rosa ahead of the peloton’s return to Italy on Tuesday.

Stage 6 – Sassano to Monte Cassino

Scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second world war this is one of the longest stages in the race and finishes with a climb to the monastery. Mostly flat for the majority of the stage, it’s not much of climb so might fall to a puncheur or a late break.

Stage 8 – Foligno to Monte Copiolo

A cat 1 followed by a cat 2 with another cat 1 summit finish should see the first GC selection and round of the first week proper of this years Giro.

Stage 14 – Aglie to Oropa 

A week after stage 8 and another cat 1, 2, 1 combination and summit finish to further shake up the GC. If the race does follow a similar pattern to last year, we will know the winner at the end of this stage. If…

Stage 16 – Ponte di Legno to Val Martello Martelltal

The stage that never was from last year with the Stelvio and Gavia tackled in one day and a summit finish thrown in for fun. RCS will be praying for good weather.

Stage 19 – Bassano del Grappa to Cima Grappa

To get over the climbs of the Giro and lose the race in a time trial could seem unfair, but this TT is straight up. If some GC riders can take an advantage through a stronger team this stage is about one rider against the climb and the clock only. If stage 19 does decide the outcome of the 2014 Giro the winner will deserve his victory.

Stage 20 – Maniago to Monte Zoncolan 

The race may have already been one, but the finish will still be spectacular. Perhaps the only marquee climb that was missing from last years race and given star billing this year.

Giro 2014 Route

It’s on… racing to the sun via the two seas – VCSE’s Racing Digest #23

Sky find form in the classics.. or do they?

Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.

Classics breakthrough for Sky? - Ian Stannard
Classics breakthrough for Sky? – Ian Stannard

Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.

While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.

Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.

So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.

Boonen’s back

Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.

We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.

Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.

His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.

Sky upset the ASO applecart

With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.

The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?

In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.

With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?

Valverde – pas normale?

After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

Rise of the inflatable sponsorship mushroom – VCSE’s Racing Digest #15

Tour de Pologne 

That this was the seventieth or so edition of the Tour of Poland may have escaped you if you didn’t realise that this is the UCI’s reincarnation of the iron curtain era Peace Race. A Cannondale benefit for the last two years with overall victories for Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser, a lack of interest in defending the crown this time around was visible in the selection of Ivan Basso as team leader. Speaking of faded glories, who was that on the start list? Only Sir Bradley Wiggins making his first appearance since the Giro but hinting at something low key by taking the last of six places in the Sky team.

Bradley Wiggins at the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
Bradley Wiggins in time trial mode (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taking place almost immediately after this years Tour de France there was inevitably an absence of riders from the that race, but this was made up for by the return of the faces from the Giro; Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali and from the distant past of the spring classics, Fabian Cancellara. There was a notable refugee from the Tour present. Christophe Riblon called into the AG2R squad due to injury and missing out on a stack of invitations to the post Tour criteriums that demand the presence of the French hero du jour. The post Tour Crits, essentially exhibition races with pre-ordained outcomes are extremely lucrative for their participants. They do require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator however finely balanced or unpredictable the outcome may appear the star attraction must win.

The UCI are considering their own devices that might ensure their sanctioned races avoid the possibilty that one or two teams can force the outcome of a race. The experiment in Poland was smaller teams of six riders. The VCSE view would be that the idea seemed to work quite well. Some things remained the same; there were the normal politics of who could or couldn’t go in the break. Smaller teams appeared to lessen the amount of time one team could stay on the front and whether by accident or design chasing down a break required cooperation. The need for versatility when choosing six rather than nice riders allowed the all rounders like Riblon and Thor Hushovd who won two stages here to come to the fore.

BMC had a good Tour of Poland following neatly on from their overall at the Tour de Wallonie the week before. Hushovd looked in his best form of this year and may even fancy his chances at the world championships on the strength of this week. Win of the week and not just for BMC was Taylor Phinney’s cheeky late break on stage 4. It was strange to think that this was Phinney’s first professional win.

Did the UCI’s novelties extend the the inflatable sponsors mushrooms (or were they light bulbs) or was this an invention of the race organisers. The same organisers had an interesting approach to on screen information with blink and you’ll miss it time gaps. Perhaps the plan was give the viewer an idea of what it was like without race radios. Keen eyed armchair fans will often see a hire van and a couple of hi viz wearing staffers waiting at the side of the road who will dismantle the races road furniture after the peloton has passed. You had to feel sorry for the students who nabbed a summer job on the Tour of Poland and found that they would be spending their time inflating the many hundreds (thousands?) of sponsors mushrooms that adorned the route. Can’t see them catching on really.

The second rank stage races often throw up the most entertaining and animated races with the smaller teams in Poland adding to the mix and ensuring the yellow leaders jersey changed riders several times. Riblon justified his selection with a stage win and just missed out on the overall by seconds on the final stage time trial. He was demonstrably frustrated with losing the race lead on the final day but with his stage win over a tough profile in Trentino decorating his Alpe d’Huez Tour victory Riblon looks like the real deal. Unlike last years hero Thibaut Pinot, Riblon has form with another Tour stage win in 2010.

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

We have too often found that our new gods have feet of clay this year with riders appearing to hit rich form only to discover later it was illegally enhanced. It’s practically impossible to believe this could be the case with Riblon, a French rider in a French team, with the severe anti doping laws in that country. Unlikely to be a factor in grand tours if nothing else Riblon’s performances cement AG2R’s place as the preeminent French world tour team of 2013. Whatever the expectations of the nation that produced Anquetil and Hinault, the teams probably set their bars lower and Riblon’s recent performances coupled with Carlos Betancur’s in the Giro would certainly be envied by FDJ this year. With the race starting in Italy for two stages it was not surprising to see the Italian based and managed Columbia team make an appearance that was rewarded with a stage win and second place for Darwin Atapuma on stages six and one respectively.

Of the returning Giro protagonists there was little sign early on in the race. VCSE spied Bradley Wiggins popping out the back on stage 1 but what became clear from reports if not the coverage was that he was working hard earlier in the stage in support of Sergio Henao. On stage 5 we actually got the evidence for ourselves, treated to Wiggins riding a massively determined turn that destroyed any hopes that the breakaway could stay ahead. As the race went on it became clear that things were getting tee’d up neatly for Wiggins to have a tilt at the win in the final stage time trial. All of the talk now is of him going for the TT in the world championships. Current title holder Tony Martin was absent but Wiggins put the best part of a minute into Fabian Cancellara and more into third place man Phinney. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief that Wiggins has finally hit form, but for VCSE it’s more important that he looks motivated again. Vincenzo Nibali was very much in training mode, dropped on the climbs and reportedly focusing on the world championships only. For Nibali the Vuelta will be a chance to ride into form for Florence at the end of the season.

The overall? A win for Peter Weening of Orica Green Edge who overcame Riblon’s seconds advantage with the time trailing equivalent of winning ugly. His winning ride lacked any souplesse but was at least effective; he took the victory by 13 seconds.

Omega Pharma for GC? 

As the cycling ‘transfer window’ opens the first team to get riders to put pen to paper was Omega Pharma. The much rumoured move from Sky of Rigoberto Uran has been confirmed and the debate about what kind of team Omega Pharma want to be has re-started.  This has been fuelled further by the (again much trailed) signings of Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw to bolster Mark Cavendish’s lead out train. VCSE’s take would be that Uran will be given more support in the grand tours that Cavendish misses. That said, Uran is probably better able than most to freelance in the mountains and if the plan is to get more Omega Pharma jerseys at the sharp end of the peloton on the climbs it’s probably a good move for team and rider.

On the other end of the scale one of the two world tour teams at risk of not appearing in 2014 Euskatel have told their riders to start looking for new teams. With 25% unemployment in Spain it was inevitable that the team would be at risk of losing their funding and a less than stellar set of results has probably sped up the decision to pull the plug. All the same it’s hard to see a team folding when they could kept afloat for a fraction of the amount that Real Madrid are thinking of paying for one player this summer.

After Katusha were reinstated to the world tour after their CAS appeal earlier in the season losing one team from the world tour would not have been too much of an issue if a second rank team was ready to move up in their place. The team most likely, swiss registered IAM have said they don’t intend to make the jump, perhaps burnt by the fact that Fabian Cancellara has re signed with Trek. If no teams make the jump it means another wild card place for the grand tours and the potential for some of the continental squads to get invitations to the second rank races also. If this means that the default invitations of only Italian or French teams to the Giro and Tour can be avoided it’s probably no bad thing. The loss of Euskatel and possibly Vacansoleil also will be felt hardest by the riders and support staff and their families.

Ride London  

No doubt the organisers of the Ride London professional race would like the event to become a regular fixture on the world tour. Run a couple of hours after the 20,000 rider had begun to cross the finish line in The Mall the was a decent sprinkling of teams including Sky, Cannondale and Garmin. With the BBC showing the start and finish of the race live the ‘big name’ being used to batter the casual viewer into showing interest was Peter Sagan. How the Beeb’s commentators would have loved a Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish to have been on the start list. Cycling gets next to no exposure on the BBC but its a shame that the editorial line is always pitched so low with no opportunity missed to mention the Olympics or someone that viewers may have heard of. In fairness the BBC deserved a ‘Chapeau!’ for showing a decent highlights package of the women’s Crit from Saturday night. Laura Trott continued her rivalry with Hannah Barnes in the sprint finish winning the race to make it all square in head to heads between the two this year.

The men’s race was fairly typical for a bumpy parcours; a breakaway that was never allowed to get so far ahead and a bunch finish. The script wasn’t followed as Sagan rode an anonymous race; the only time he appeared on camera was getting bottles from the team car. The circuits of Leith Hill were also largely processional, with the real digs coming on the single ascent of Box Hill. David Millar’s attempt to get another group across to the break was drowned out by the apathy of his companions. When it came to sprint, Parliment Square proved to be too much of a bottle neck for some teams leaving FDJ, who had shown their jersey in the break all day, to be the best organised for the finish. Arnaud Demare took the win with teammates in close attendance.

The men’s race inspires some international interest in the event. The close links between Ride London and the London Marathon would suggest that the format will continue with a professional event book ending the main event which is the sportive. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who take part in the Marathon it’s hard to see why a ceiling of 20,000 was put on the sportive. With 80,000 applying for a ballot place it does seem strange that more riders aren’t able to take part. Obviously the infrastructure needed to close roads through the capital and the Surrey stockbroker belt costs but given that the Marathon is able to support the ‘fun runner’ element surely something could be done to allow more cyclists of all standards to take part next year. This year everyone was given the same start location with any riders struggling to make the 4.00pm cut off directed onto short cuts back to the capital. Perhaps in true sportive style a shorter route could be incorporated next year.

Final thoughts. How many capital cities dedicate their centre’s to mass participation cycling events and professional road races on the same day? Chapeau to London and the organisers. I expect the sportive will be massively over subscribed when registration opens later this month. Last year the BBC showed an hours highlights programme for the men’s and women’s world championship road races. This in the same year as the first ever British Tour de France win and the Olympics. As the BBC programming closed today they announced that they would be showing this years world championships live. For dedicated fans of the sport the low brow coverage maybe frustrating, but we should all celebrate the increased coverage the sport is now getting on the national broadcaster.

Another positive (or should that be negative?) for Vini Fantini

Mauro Santambrogio
Mauro Santambrogio (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It’s been announced this afternoon that Vini Fantini rider Mauro Santambrogio has failed a doping test for EPO. Unlike his erstwhile teammate Danilo Di Luca Santambrogio’s test was carried out in Italy. The findings were discovered at a Rome laboratory after the test was taken ahead of stage 1 of this years Giro d’Italia, held in Naples.

VCSE has picked up on the story this afternoon via social media. At present there hasn’t been any comment officially from Santambrogio’s no doubt soon to be ex employers Vini Fantini, but his DS at the Giro Luca Scinto has already hinted that it could spell the end of the team, stating; “It’s the end of our project”. It’s a blow to VCSE as well after we had backed the rider as one to watch following his performances in early season events like Tirreno Adriatico and his stage 14 win at the Giro last month.

The positive test raises many questions, chiefly would Santambrogio have achieved the same results if he had ridden clean? Although no longer with a world tour team, the move to Vini Fantini at the age of 28 provided a fantastic platform to lead a team and ride for general classification results in addition to stage wins. Assuming Santambrogio offers no defence to the positive test he will have, in effect, ended his career.

How so? If the noises from the peloton are to be believed there appears to be a shift towards lifetime bans for dopers. This was certainly the consensus when Di Luca’s positive test was reported. In practice it is unlikely to happen, if only because sanctions aren’t applied universally. Take the example of Garmin where David Millar is not only an ex doper, but also part owner of the team. In addition to Millar there are riders on Garmin like Christian Van de Velde and David Zabriskie who served bans in the off season after their part in the Lance Armstrong / USADA case. Garmin maintain a transparent anti doping stance and where formed as such. The riders on the team who have doped in the past have ultimately come forward and cooperated with the anti doping authorities. This is not the case with other teams, where although an anti doping stance is implied it is not always explicit how this is applied.

Team Sky’s zero tolerance anti doping policy is the other high profile example from the world tour. This has proved to be a blessing and a curse for Sky as it essentially relies on the preparedness of team members to be open about doping. Prior to the Lance Armstrong ‘reasoned decision’ Sky had unwittingly employed ex dopers who subsequently left the team when the Armstrong story broke. As far as VCSE is aware there aren’t any other world tour teams who maintain such a highly visible anti doping stance as Garmin and Sky. Garmin’s approach appears to have its merits in that riders who admit to having doped in the past can remain with the team, although the emphasis here is ex doper. Former professional rider turned DS Matt White was sacked by Garmin after recommending a doctor closely associated with doping to a rider on the team.

Sky’s zero tolerance policy seems simple enough, but it was easy for riders and staff to circumvent it by just not saying anything about their past. Where zero tolerance falls down for VCSE is that Sky have lost talent from the team (back room staff in particular) by not allowing the chance of rehabilitation. It has also led to questions being asked when someone leaves the team under ‘unusual’ circumstances.

Students of the cycling biography (Tyler Hamilton & David Millar being obvious examples) will know that teams historically employed some kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. The reality of this was probably that don’t ask and don’t tell was the grey, middle area between teams that openly employed a doping strategy (open within the confines of the team bus that is) and teams that left the riders to make their own arrangements, safe in the knowledge that a professional rider would always ‘prepare’ properly for a big race.

VCSE believes that road racing is pretty clean at present. The fact that riders are testing positive suggests that the anti doping controls that are in place are working and the teams are taking appropriate action if a rider tests positive. The problems begin when considering the wider impact of a positive test. Mauro Santambrogio looked like a rider on the verge of a great year, if not greatness having joined a new team. Tyler Hamilton talked about how he achieved some of his greatest results riding clean, but as a doper all of his results carry that taint. It’s the same for Santambrogio, who finds himself, quite legitimately under scrutiny for every placing this year, if not in previous years before that.

VCSE wraps up the 2013 Giro

Giro stages 20 & 21 – Silandro to Tre Cime di Lavaredo & Riese Pio X to Brescia 

One of the recurring themes of this years Giro, if not the entire season so far, has been the (unseasonal) weather. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised anyone for it to have snowed in the Alps and the Dolomites, but heavy snowfall in the run up to and morning of Stage 19 saw its cancellation. With earlier stages effected by the route changing or being shortened, losing what had promised to be one of, if not the most iconic climbing stage was a massive blow. Probably the only rider in the peloton unhappy about getting an additional rest day was Vincenzo Nibali. Although he had dominated the second time trial, the chances to demonstrate his superiority via a stage win shrank by half with the loss of the Stelvio and Gavia from the race.

RCS wouldn’t have asked for the story that did come to dominate the day instead; Danilo Di Luca’s positive EPO test announced at almost the same time as stage getting cancelled. Di Luca was without a team at the start of the season and the was only 72 hours between the test being carried out and the announcement that he would be riding for Vini Fantini at the Giro. His attempts to animate the race, if not pick up a stage win had fizzled out pretty quickly so an immediate conclusion to draw was; doping to what advantage? Di Luca himself was pretty tight lipped. There was talk of ‘B’ samples to be checked. His team were more decisive, sacking him on the spot. The comments, from those members of the peloton that chose to, was (at least) unequivocal in condemming Di Luca as an example of once a doper always a doper. On a scientific note, the positive test was carried in a German lab where  rumour has it that micro dosing of EPO can be established. If this is fact rather than speculation it raises a couple of interesting points. One, in the doping ‘arms race’, are the testers edging ahead of the cheats finally? Two, was this a rider of a previous generation unable to race without taking performance enhancing drugs or not sophisticated enough to avoid detection?

After losing the previous days stage and the dread of a doping story the likelihood was that the organisers would have run any kind of stage the following day. To circumvent the worst of the weather the stage stayed in the valleys before taking in the climb to Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Although this resulted in 90% of the stage feeling pretty dull, the final kilometres more than made up for it. In fact, the route climbed steadily for most of the day, although the gradient was barely noticeable most of the time. As the km’s clicked up the temperature began to fall and the riders began to add the layers. The contrast between the conditions at the start of the stage and at the finish line gave the appearance of two separate races held on two separate days.

English: Vincenzo Nibali, winner of the 75th V...
Vincenzo Nibali in his first Grand Tour win – the 2010 Vuelta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Vincenzo Nibali this was his last chance to cement, barring accidents, overall victory with a stage win. While the previous years winner, the now departed Ryder Hesjedal was recognised as a great champion, his win had been achieved without an individual stage success. For Nibali, the sense was a stage win would provide the required backdrop. His Astana teammates, who got stronger as the race went on got him into a great position for the final climb, emphasised by their own high placings at the finish. As the weather closed in, Nibali just seemed to get stronger with only one of his GC rivals, Rigoberto Uran who finished nearly 20 seconds down, in touch at the finish. Cadel Evans had looked broken on the stage, although he later cited a mechanical that caused him to give up his second place overall to Uran. It was a good day all round for Colombian riders with Carlos Betancur and Fabio Duarte finishing 1,2,3 (in fact 4, 3, 2 respectively) behind Nibali. He could smile through the cold as he took part in three separate presentations (he also took over the points jersey from Mark Cavendish) knowing that he had all but won the 2013 Giro.

The final stage of the Giro, unlike the Tour, is not run neutralised. With the destination of most of the jerseys resolved however, the peloton seemed happy enough to cruise into Brescia on the last day. No champagne or even prosecco was in evidence although there were some pizza deliveries being made from the team cars. Vincenzo Nibali was resplendent in pink, happy to up the quotient to socks and helmet if not to make any changes to his bike which stayed resolutely white and blue throughout the race. Carlos Betancur had ridden into the young riders jersey the previous day, which left just the Maglia Rosso points jersey up for grabs.

Mark Cavendish had been in and out of the points lead for the three weeks of the race. We had touched on the difficulties for a sprinter to win the points competition at the Giro in our Giro preview, going so far as to say that the challenge would probably see Cavendish abandon before the mountains. A look at his rivals for the jersey indicated the challenge; Nibali, Evan, Betancur etc. If he could take both intermediate sprints on the final stage,  Cavendish would be back in the lead and virtually assured of taking the Maglia Ross0. A flash of the legendary Cavendish temper ahead of the second sprint. As the peloton began their laps of the Brescia circuit a lone Andrioni rider made a break. Cavendish having reached a gentlemen’s agreement with Nibali that he (Nibali) wouldn’t race for the points, shot off in angry pursuit. Cue much gesticulation and no doubt profanity as attempts to marshal the recalcitrant wild card rider back to the group, Cavendish forced to sprint hard for the line.

On the second lap, another Cavendish sprint and general cussedness as the line was crossed; what was the cause of all of his frustration. The guilty culprit appeared to be the roadbook, certainly Omega Pharm at least didn’t appear to know at what distance the second intermediate fell. All of this was forgetten fortunately when it really mattered as Cavendish easily overhauled the much depleted from three weeks of hard racing sprint field. Elia Viviani probably the only recognised first line sprinter left to rival Cavendish at the death.

And so to the celebrations. Nibali emotional, yet dignified also. Hard to appear so in the hot pink throne that the organisers placed centre stage for him. Cavendish all smiles, 2012 avenged and one a select few riders to have won the points competition in all three grand tours. Betancur, winner of the young riders jersey a great prospect for the future, but here and now celebrating a relatively unsupported result; AG2R finishing the race with only four other riders.

Giro 2013 – postscript 

VCSE always tipped Vincenzo Nibali for the GC ahead of Bradley Wiggins. The spike in the popularity of cycling as a sport in the UK is largely fueled by Wiggins stellar 2012. It’s unfortunate, but somewhat inevitable also that this also polarises a lot of the coverage the sport gets in the UK mainstream media. It’s a good thing that, for example, the BBC covered the Giro the same way it would cover the Tour this year. It’s less positive that the lens through which everything got covered was Wiggins shaped. In fairness VCSE gave up on the daily BBC podcast for just this reason after about stage 4 or 5, so if the tone changed; mea culpa. The focus on Sir Bradley, as the BBC insisted on calling him, across the majority of the media in the UK meant that the reasons to celebrate British success (of which there were plenty) felt airbrushed from coverage more concerned with Wiggins descending difficulties.

The VCSE argument against a Wiggins victory in this years Giro was based on his relative to 2012 poor form coming into the race. Compared to the previous year where he had won pretty much everything he entered, in 2013 Wiggins didn’t have so much as a podium place to celebrate. Sure, things didn’t always go his way; the mechanical on the queen stage of the Trentino, his last race before the Giro a good example. The only crumb on offer was the line offered from Sky that his ‘numbers’ were “better than last year” or that he was climbing better than ever.

With the benefit of hindsight Wiggins climbing wasn’t the issue. There were some surface cracks in the Sky gameplan when their team leader seemed to lack protection that would have prevented him losing time in the early stages due to other riders accidents. Things fell apart on stage 7 with Wiggins inoccuous looking slide on the descent into Pescara. In the wet conditions that seemed to become the default for the rolling stages, Wiggins  remounted but proceeded at a snails pace. Nibali had suffered a slide of his own on the same descent, but the difference in the speed in which he remounted and then got on with things compared to his then joint GC favourite was palpable.

Sky would have expected to go into the first TT with Wiggins positioned to take the GC lead. Although the parcours was not particularly friendly to him, his testing abilities should have given Wiggins the platform to put time into his rivals. Instead, he suffered another mechanical and didn’t gel with his replacement bike, a completely different model. In spite of his bad luck and difficulties with his second bike this was perhaps Wiggins high point in the race. After the inevitable time loss at the first time check he recorded the fastest time over the second (longer) section. Although denied the stage win, Wiggins was back in contention. Unfortunately, the following day the rain was back and with it his descending woes. At one point Wiggins was out the back, but a massive turn from the Sky diesel domestiques got him back to Nibali’s group by the finish. Stage 10, the first summit finish was the big test to see Wiggins could hold onto Nibali who had gone into the lead after the TT. As things turned out Wiggins lost more time on the stage won by teammate Rigoberto Uran. With ramps of 20% in places VCSE’s view is that Wiggins performance on the stage was pretty strong for a rider who climbs at a steady rate, rather than with explosive accelerations. He lost time on the steepest sections, but was coming back at the finish, certainly fairing better on the climb than some his rivals.

Wiggins didn’t lose time the following day, but by the end of stage 12 he was gone. A difficult day where he lost time in heavy rain and the virus he had been suffering from getting worse led to Wiggins departure and Rigoberto Uran’s elevation to team leader. Uran had already leapfrogged his erstwhile team leader on GC at this point and he had unwittingly pointed to what would become the Wiggins narrative following his withdrawl when he (Uran) described himself as “..not like Froome”. There had been speculation before the Giro about what Wiggins would do at the Tour. Wiggins had fueled some of this himself when he declared in an interview that he wanted to lead Sky at the Tour and defend his title. In the week between the end of the Giro and the start of the Dauphine the story rolls on.

Vincenzo Nibali would probably be the first to admit his overall victory would have been enhanced by a fit Bradley Wiggins. Some may feel his achievement was also diminished by the enforced route changes and even cancellation of one stage. This would do him a disservice. Nibali looked the class of the GC field from the outset and while his team looked to have rode into some good form by the end of the race to support him during the final days, Nibali is the kind of rider who is well capable of looking after himself. His next target, supposedly is the Vuelta a race he has won before. Last years Vuelta top 3 were missing from the Giro, but if Nibali can maintain this form he should be a genuine contender for Spain’s grand tour.

The weather and viruses that swept through the peloton caused an attrition rate of nearly 20% including defending champion Ryder Hesjedal. This years Giro was a race to be endured rather than enjoyed. An ambitious and exciting parcours that included climbs of the Telegraphe and Galibier in France as well as the Stelvio and Gavia deserved to be raced and will hopefully feature again, although probably not next year. The doping story was an unfortunate reminder of the darker side of Italian racing, but the way it was handled by the organisers and the effected team gives confidence of the new attitude to drugs in the sport.

There was more British success with Alex Dowsett’s victory in the first TT. Dowsett moved to Movistar from Sky at the beginning of the year and his new team could justifiably claim to be the team of the Giro with stage wins for Giovanni Visconti and Benat Intxausti also.

Bradley Wiggins departure from the Giro spoiled the plans of much of the UK medias editorial which missed an arguably greater British achievement at the race. Mark Cavendish took 5 stage wins on the way to becoming only the fifth rider to win the points classification in all three grand tours. He had to overcome the equal weighting for points finishes on each stage in the Giro as well as getting himself over the climbs. Bradley Wiggins will always be the first British winner of the Tour de France but our greatest stage racer is Mark Cavendish.

Movistars – VCSE’s Racing Digest #10

Giro stages 16, 17 & 18 – Valloire to Ivrea, Carrvaggio to Vicenza & Mori to Polsa 

The curse of VCSE struck Mauro Santambrogio on stage 16 as our tip for a Giro podium place lost significant time on his GC rivals. While the Vini Fantini rider admitted he had a bad day, he was philosophical about his Giro so far saying, “I can’t complain how my Giro has gone.. it’s been great so far” His Vini Fantini DS Luca Scinto felt the loss of time was more a result of a tactics glitch where riders who had gone up the road to cover breaks weren’t available to support Santambrogio on the final climb of the day.

The possibility of bunch finish also fell away as the remaining sprinters in the peloton struggled over a category 3 climb that was harder than it looked in the road book. The GC protagonists had swallowed up the break on the ascent and the went into line astern on a technical descent that allowed Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans to show off their lines.

Benat Intxausti-IMG 2021
Benat Intxausti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the road flattened into the finish at Ivrea a game of cat and mouse ensued as riders attempted to break out, but in the main the group remained pretty much shackled. Robert Gesink, by this point well down on GC made an attack that did stick, only to suffer a heartbreaking mechanical with less than 2 km to go denying Blanco the consolation of a stage win at this years race. The eventual winner was Benat Intxausti giving him a stage to go with his day in the Maglia Rosa and Movistar their second win in 24 hours.

Stage 17 offered another crack at a win for the sprinters and decent weather again after the snow of the weekend. The weather forecast remained in the headlines ahead of the stage however. Snowfall in the Dolomites had put the mountain stages due later in the week at risk of course alteration and possibly even cancellation.

The parcours was similar to the previous day, with a ‘bump’ in the road to negotiated before the potential of sprint finish for Mark Cavendish to contest. As the GC group reeled in the break on the climb a sense of deja vu was palpable as Cavendish began to weave across the road and lost touch with the group. You have to feel for him in these situations, as with the previous day Cavendish had remained in contention with the peloton only to see his hard work unravel on supposedly gentle climb.

At one stage it looked like it would be Danilo Di Luca who would deliver the self styled ‘killer’ blow, but then a rapid acceleration out of the group came from Sunday’s stage winner Giovanni Visconti. He rode past Di Luca like he was standing still and crested the summit with a half minute advantage. How much of Visconti’s second and Movistar’s third victory in as many days was down to a lack of interest from the GC contenders might be seen as a diminution of the win. Movistar are rapidly becoming the team of this years Giro and the mood in the team must be fantastic at this point with four wins and Benat Intxausti’s day in the Maglia Rosa to celebrate.

Whether or not his rivals would rue their opportunity to put some time into Vincenzo Nibali come Sunday remains to be seen, but for the Astana team leader stage 17 was another step closer to winning this years Giro. With stage 18’s time trial to come, Nibali predicted he could be putting time into Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran ahead of the mountain stages on Friday and Saturday.

The TT with an uphill course was never going to favour specialist testers, instead promising the chance of the GC contenders to move up (and down) the leader board. Winners and losers on the day? The rider to emerge with the most ‘credit’ was Nibali, clear winner on the stage and increasing his overall lead to more than 4 mins. That advantage was held over Cadel Evans who lost so much time on the stage Nibali must have entertained thoughts of overtaking him. The difference in both riders body language as they crossed the line was clear to see, but Evans was classy in conceding the stage, if not the race later “Nibali in a class of his own.. Evans, if I may say so myself – abysmal”. He went on to say it was “good training”, a not so subtle note to Tejay Van Garderen about BMC leadership at the upcoming Tour perhaps?

One more bit of news as the day closed was the announcement that poor weather had forced the route for stage 19 to be altered. The prospect of the peloton taking on the Gavia and Stelvio will have to wait for another year.