Going around in CIRC’les – VCSE’s Racing Digest #40

Paris Nice 2015

I normally enjoy both of the week long early season stage races but a number of distractions over the last couple of weeks kept me from seeing much in the way of live racing. Fortunately, Eurosport gives me plenty of opportunities to catch up via their highlights programme. Out of the two races I think the one that provided the most interest was Paris Nice, particularly after Chris Froome’s late pull out from Tirreno denied us the next instalment of his match up with Alberto Contador. Paris Nice 2015 returned to its traditional format with an opening prologue and finishing with the Col d’Eze TT. And in a repeat of the last time the race followed this format in 2013 Richie Porte took his second overall win and stage victories on the only summit finish and the Col d’Eze.

Other than going down briefly, descending in poor conditions on the penultimate stage Porte looked like the real deal when it mattered without actually holding the race lead until he finished on Sunday. The holder of the yellow jersey for much of the race was world champion Michael Kwiatowski, the winner of the prologue and well looked after by his Etixx teammates through much of the early stages. Kwiatowski, who is the Polish TT champion was only a second down on Porte going into the last stage but he couldn’t match Porte’s pace in the TT.

If we base things purely on this outcome Porte looks ready to challenge for the GC in this year’s Giro and barring accidents he shouldn’t have his ambitions to lead a team in grand tour overturned by Sky’s need to protect Chris Froome in the Tour (as happened in 2013). If early season form is anything to go by Sky look in fantastic shape grand tour wise with real strength in depth and enough talent to potentially challenge in the Giro and Tour. For Kwiatowski, things don’t look quite so clear GC wise. Tony Martin showed that the massive pulls he put in during last years Tour were not a one off, but he’s really not the kind of climbing domestique that Kwiatowski will need to protect him in a three week grand tour. Of course, none of this could be part of the plan for Etixx although I suspect that the team will look for a decent showing if they’re unable to land one of the monuments in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere it was honours even in the battle to be the best French sprinter with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare finishing ahead of each other twice in the bunch finishes. Neither managed a win (a second place apiece) with Bouhanni edging Demare with his placings. Bouhanni needs to win to add weight to his claims that he should have been the supported rider at FDJ last year. Demare as the rider who stayed has to justify his team’s decision to back him ahead of the other rider. Of course it’s still early days, but I don’t expect either rider to kick on in 2015 in the same way as Elia Viviani say.

The winner of Saturday’s stage into Nice was Lotto rider Tony Gallopin. While the French rider probably didn’t have the time trialling chops to protect a lead of less than a minute from Porte up the Col d’Eze he did show that last years performance during the Tour in the Vosges wasn’t a one off. For a team that’s likely to feed off scraps in 2015 it’s likely that Gallopin will be one of the big hopes to deliver a breakaway win.

Tirreno Adriatico 2015

Tirreno was the lesser of the two races for me this year. I enjoyed Wout Poels breakaway win on stage 5. I think he’s a great signing for Sky and the teams line up for the Volta Catalunya this week suggests that Poels will be one of Chris Froome’s key supporters at the Tour. As Poels took the race lead as well as the stage win on Saturday I found myself wondering if he could actually go for the win. All of this daydreaming was proved to be just that within 24 hours as Nairo Quintana delivered the kind of emphatic win that characterised his Giro win last year. The weather was pretty Giro like as well with the last few km’s ridden in blizzard conditions. Quintana obviously didn’t feel the cold and he looked about as happy and animated as I have ever seen him winning by 41 seconds and taking the race lead. Vincenzo Nibali, in comparison, looked like he was having a horrible time and would rather be anywhere else than the race he won as recently as 2013. Another rider who enjoyed a less than stellar Tirreno was Alberto Contador. Lack of form or lack of Froome. Who knows? For the other two grand tour winners of 2014 it was a week to forget.

After I semi wrote him off in my last post Peter Sagan took the final bunch sprint in pouring rain on Monday. Actually, I was reflecting on the increased pressure Sagan is under to deliver a big win to justify is multi-million Euro contract at Tinkoff Saxo but the win will restore some confidence to the rider. Other commentators who can draw on better connections with the team are suggesting that Sagan is bullish about his chances of landing a monument in 2015, but I’m still not convinced that it will happen this Spring. I’ll predict here that Sagan’s best showing in the monuments in 2015 (other than placing in Milan San Remo) will be later in the year in the Giro d’Lombardia.

It was good to see MTN Quhbeka get a result with Steve Cummings finishing just behind Contador with 6th place on GC. MTN have retained the services of Brian Smith in 2015 and he’s signed some big(ish) names for the African team. I’m not entirely sure how all of these riders are going to gel and even less clear on how they intend to win. Gerard Ciolek’s breakout win for the team in the 2013 edition of MSR put them firmly on the world stage and if nothing else the profile has been further raised by Smith’s signings for 2015. Invites to the grand tours have followed, but unlike 2009 where Smith also had a hand in the launch of the Cervelo Test Team these riders don’t look like they will deliver a repeat of Ciolek’s monument. I think there are too many sprinters and these aren’t riders who have been winning regularly either. I would really like to see MTN go well as I like a lot of the personalities involved in the team but I think they will be living off scraps in 2015 too. They do have the best looking bikes in the peleton though!

CIRC report

Paris Nice in particular started with the release of the CIRC report looming in the background. The headline pulled from the 200 plus page document was the “..90% of the peloton are doping” and this made most newspapers, radio and TV reports. If this claim is to be believed it’s not great news for the sport. As I have commented previously the challenge for the sport is to provide stories that will attract sponsors into the sport. We have seen new team sponsors this year and there’s a real resurgence in interest in countries like Germany who pretty much abandoned coverage after the doping scandals of the late 2000’s. The situation remains fragile though and how riders, teams and the UCI deal with the fallout from CIRC will be incredibly important for the sport to grow.

Taking women’s cycling as an example. The UCI have delivered some improvements to the race schedule and there seems to be an appetite to show more of the women’s races in 2015. Achieving parity with the men is not helped by negative stories coming from the men’s peloton. Like it or not, women’s cycling will continue to rely on the trickle down of investment and interest in the men’s for the next year or two. It goes without saying that potential investment lost to world tour and pro conti teams will impact on the women’s peloton too. Not least the suggestion that (at least) each world tour team should run a ladies team with a full race programme as well.

The 90% comment was polarizing as so much of the quotes in the report were unattributed. While riders (past and present) subsequently revealed that they had spoken to the CIRC committee, Chris Froome was the only current rider that allowed his name to go into the published document. Thankfully, Froome wasn’t made the lightning rod as a result of his preparedness to put his name to the report. I have been critical of Sky’s use of TUE’s (one of the major examples given in the report of where there is huge potential for abuse) and I though it was interesting that Froome withdrew from Tirreno this year citing a chest infection. Would this have happened 12 months ago? As I say, whatever people might think of Froome and / or Sky I thought he deserved some credit for putting his name to the report.

Of course, there were many conflicting views as to whether or not the report had gone far enough in both revealing and / or confirming some of the doping stories surrounding the sport and what should be done to improve the situation. My own take is that the report didn’t reveal much that was new and perhaps that was why the recommendations had a lightweight feel. Credit to Brian Cookson for commissioning the report as I couldn’t imagine this happening previously at the UCI. That in itself is progress.

There are some commentators who believe that anyone connected to doping in the past should be unable to take part in the sport. While I understand the view I take a more pragmatic approach that recognises that it would be pretty much impossible to unpick cycling apart in such away. I think there remains an opportunity to provide riders and staff past and present with the platform to ‘fess up, even if this would be a somewhat flawed process. Say, rider A a current member of the peloton comes forward and admits doping previously. Where is the statute of limitations that says that the rider should be banned now for something they did previously, one year ago? Two? Of course this is where the ‘ban them all’ approach seems appealing, but my gut feel is that it’s likely that in the not too recent past 90% of the peloton were doping. I don’t think that the sport would survive the loss of so many riders. That doesn’t excuse the offence or mean that I think that everyone who doped previously should be given a hall pass. i just think that the approach and solution as far as doping catharsis is concerned is a lot more nuanced.

A final CIRC related thought. Brian Cookson (and others) have come out strongly against Lance Armstrong taking part in Geoff Thomas’ cancer charity ride that will take place ahead of this years Tour. Thomas, an ex professional footballer is another cancer survivor and I was pleased to see him taking a stand in favour of Armstrong’s continued involvement. I have no issue with the sanctions that Armstrong faces as a cyclist, even extending to his wish to participate in Ironman’s. However, I cannot see how anyone can deny Armstrong’s cancer. Thomas discusses Armstrong’s presence as a part of his rehabilitation in the cancer community. While the vehicle in this case is a bike I think the decision to involve Armstrong or not belongs with Thomas and the charity he is raising money for. Some people may see this as yet another example of Armstrong’s cynicism but i’m prepared to take his professed motivation at face value on this one.

VCSE’s voting form for Cyclingnews 2014 awards

Have you had your say in the Cyclingnews 2014 awards yet? OK so we’re likely to see the usual suspects winning but it’s at least a truly democratic selection and representation of armchair fans’ views. For what it’s worth the VCSE voting form went something like this..

Moment of the year? - Grand Depart 2014
Moment of the year? – Grand Depart 2014

Best rider – Vincenzo Nibali

This was a bit of a toss up between Contador and the Shark. We held our nose about picking Chris Froome as pre-race Tour favourite this year even though Bert looked like the stronger of the two. What most people didn’t expect was that Vicenzo Nibali would take advantage of those two marking each other on stage 2 and attack for the stage victory and race lead before the race had even reached France. Following their respective injury led departures from the Tour it was Contador that claimed the ‘I probably would have beaten you at the Tour’ prize by knocking Froome over at the Vuelta. But the crucial point for Nibali in getting the VCSE nod over the Spaniard was his assured ride over the cobbles on stage 5 of the Tour. Surely the award of best rider has to go the one who demonstrated the greatest versatility and on a day where Contador appeared to be going backwards at times it was Nibali who emerged as the consummate bike handler.

Best female rider – Lizzie Armitstead

Legend that she is 2014 was not the greatest year for Marianne Vos. True there were victories in the races she outright targeted; the inaugural Women’s Tour and Le Course but she was more of a peripheral figure this year. Lizzie Armitstead may not have expected to win the World Cup after her stunning early season consistency but win she did, further raising he profile outside of the UK. Then there was her Commonwealth Games gold against a field where (unlike the men’s race) Lizzie was up against a genuinely classy peloton. She may still rue the tactics that threw away an opportunity to win the worlds in September but looking back this has been a great year, no question.

Best track rider – Francois Pervis

Based purely on seeing him perform at the final round of the Revolution series earlier this year (he had already won the worlds by this time). With the British teams focus on the four year ‘cycle’ towards Rio 2016 it’s perhaps not surprising that Pervis made Jason Kenny look (if not) ordinary, then certainly not the reigning Olympic champion.

Rider of the year – Alberto Contador

A vote here for Contador might look a bit strange after picking Nibali earlier but Contador gets the nod for his results over the entire season. For starters Contador beat Nibali (winner of the previous two editions) easily in Tirreno Adriatico as the season was getting underway and long before his return from injury to claim his second Vuelta in three years. Throughout the year, Contador had the edge over his main rivals and he looked like the rider to beat ahead of this years Tour. We really only saw the briefest of flashes that Alberto was stronger than Nibali with his dig in final metres of stage 9, but by the next day he was gone. Of course, Nibali was not really seen as much of a threat before the race got underway, chief rival Froome never looked as if he had the confidence to seriously challenge Contador at the Tour. The gap between the two (in 2014 at least) was emphasised at the Vuelta. Winning his home grand tour may have provided some satisfaction after the disappointment of injury at the Tour but that’s the race you have to suspect Contador will want more than anything in 2015.

Stage race – Vuelta a Espana

Considering that it has provided more drama than the Tour (if not the Giro too) in the last few years the Vuelta remains the poor relation of the grand tours; threatened with a reduction in length or used as a training block for the world championships that follow. So the final stage was a bit of anti climax, what preceded it had it all with a GC contest going to the wire again. OK, it’s true that we probably wouldn’t have seen Contador or Froome at the race without their respective Tour exits but the fact is they were. The resulting battle the Sky power meter and Tinkoff street fighting provided the kind of stage racing the Tour often lacks. The Vuelta has to be the antidote to the Tour if it’s to survive in this format. The parcours and the field can throw up an unusual result (as with Chris Horner in 2013) and while it won’t ever enjoy the sheer scale of the Tour, at the moment at least, it’s the better race to watch.

One day race – Tour of Flanders

A close run thing with Paris Roubaix but on the basis of the Ronde literally going down to the final kilometre it has to be Flanders. With at least one more year of the Cancellara and Boonen rivalry to enjoy it’s going to take a Wiggins win in Roubaix to knock Flanders off the top step in 2015.

Team – Tinkoff 

Grand tour winner? Check. Colourful team owner? Definitely. Up and coming new rider? Another tick. Strength in depth? In spades. Tinkoff Saxo showed that they could do most things better than their rivals in 2014. Losing team leader Alberto Contador on the Tour didn’t see the implosion that overcame Sky who lost Chris Froome almost a week earlier. Instead Tinkoff took stage wins and claimed the KOM with Rafal Majka. Bjaarne Riis selling up to Oleg Tinkoff pre season was just one of the ingredients that made Tinkoff the team of 2014. Astana might have had a look in but that outfit looks increasingly schizophrenic with Nibali and Aru struggling to balance out a slew of failed drug tests. Tinkoff can look forward to the arrival of Peter Sagan next year to rev up their one day prospects too.

Tour bike – Cervelo 

Silly question. Have you seen my Instagram?

Innovation – in race technology 

Could have said Di2 XTR here, but on reflection the introduction of in race technology (most pertinently on bike cameras) might presage better ways of presenting the sport. Watching a stage race live and actually getting excited before the final 10km is completely dependent on what’s at stake. It’s hard to get too jazzed about a flat transitional stage or any part of the Tour of Alberta (for example), which seems entirely based on arrow straight roads across featureless plains. Showing on bike footage, either live or previous days highlights could prove really useful in providing some colour to the bits in between. Same goes for the live timing used during the TT at the worlds’; actually made watching a time trial live interesting.

Memorable moment – Yorkshire Grand Depart 

This was so nearly a “don’t know”. There were plenty of memorable moments to choose from; an exciting year in the classics, Quintana winning the Giro, Contador coming back to win the Vuelta, Jens taking the hour record. The unfortunately named ‘Big Start’ of the Giro was successful but perhaps lost something as a spectacle due to almost constant rain and sprint finishes. The Grand Depart on the other hand enjoyed blissful climatic conditions and the kind of public enthusiasm that we do in the UK since the Olympics. No one could have predicted just how many would turn out for a glimpse of the Tour. And this wasn’t just in the places you expected. Crowds four and five deep on a straight section of Essex A road as experienced by your correspondent on the stage into London showed just how popular the sport has become. It lights the touch paper for further friendly incursions by the Tour and potentially the chance of finally over coming the difficulties in staging closed road races here.

Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

Vuelta a Espana 2014 final week 

Just as VCSE questioned the lack of stage wins from the leading contenders for this years Vuelta a Espana and up pops Alberto Contador to bookend the final week with two convincing victories. If it had ever been in doubt that Contador was the class act of the GC field in this years race, these were dispelled by the two results he achieved in the final week. On stage 16 and the penultimate stage 20 Chris Froome was the only one of the main protagonists who could stay close to the race leader but the proximity was strictly in Contador’s gift. He hovered on Froome’s wheel as the two ascended the final climnb to Puerto de Ancares with Purito Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde long since dispatched, before delivering the coup de grace to the Sky team leader and winning by 16 seconds.

Alberto Contador - Vuelta 2014 winner
Alberto Contador – Vuelta 2014 winner

Froome finished the race just over a minute behind Contador in second, having overhauled Valverde earlier in the week but the bare facts are that after stage 16 Contador was unassailable. With the exception of Valverde’s stage win during the first week and the few seconds that Froome gained (only to lose them again the following day) on stage 14 Contador didn’t look like he was in any danger of losing the race lead he had inherited from Valverde’s Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana.

As is the case with every grand tour it seems the final stage, a short time trial around Santiago de Compostela, proved to be anti climatic in more ways than one. The GC is normally long settled by this point and for the 2014 Vuelta the stage descended to near farce as a sudden downpour left the course near unrideable for the sharper end of the peloton. Contador was able to concede more time to Froome in 10 kilometres than he had allowed in the preceding three weeks without any fear that he might actually lose the race lead. This years edition of the Vuelta has had some fantastic stages and the organisers can hardly be blamed for the weather, but final stages are almost becoming an irrelevance as far as GC is concerned. It’s hard to imagine that the events of the final (TT) stage in Paris for the 1989 Tour could be engineered, but organisers and fans alike must all wish for a final day that is worth watching for more that just the final seconds of a bunch sprint.

Contador should (rightly) be viewed as the strongest rider in this years Vuelta, but inevitably questions remain as to whether he would have been able to beat Quintana had the Colombian stayed on his bike. With the absence of a particular rider (for whatever reason) from each of this years grand tours and, furthermore, some riders crashing out during an event we have been denied the opportunity to confirm which rider is the ‘best’ in 2014. Should it be Nibali, Quintana or Contador? Of the first two, both made winning their grand tour victories look relatively simple in the absence of the strongest opposition. Quintana started as a favourite for the Giro, rightly so, but it’s harder to make the case that Nibali started this year’s Tour as a shoe in for the maillot jaune however convincing his win appeared to be in the end. Contador showed flashes in the Tour that he was in great form, a short attack to distance Nibali the day before he (Contador) crashed out in the Vosges for example. We were denied a similar comparison between Contador and Quintana during the Vuelta, but gut feel is that Contador is probably the rider who was the strongest this year. All of this is based on speculation and relatively uninformed opinion. It’s hardly likely that Contador and Froome would have ridden this years Vuelta unless they had crashed out of the Tour, in which case we could have been looking at a Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez podium.

Which leads us to who will be challenging in the grand tours in 2015. Chris Froome has the biggest point to prove. Whichever way Sky spin things, this has been their worst year since 2011, perhaps even since their inception without a single major win in one day or stage races. Not all of this is Froome’s fault as such, although it can be argued that his bike handling did contribute to his early exit from the Tour. The suggestion was that Froome’s performances improved as the Vuelta went on, but conversely it could be said that his main rivals (bar Contador) faded as the race went on. Froome seemed almost a caricature  of himself at times; his fixation on his stem is now a staple for television commentators as much as satirists. Sky’s ability to set the pace for the peloton has waned from the beginning of this season to the point where it almost isn’t a factor anymore. This doesn’t spell the end of the team or Froome though; he was always going to struggle where changes of pace determined by gradient was a factor. It is interesting that Sky have signed, or been linked to, riders who will be able to bring some tactical insight to the team next year. Capturing Nico Roche from Tinkoff will be a real coup if Sky are going to learn how to deal with Contador next season. Worst case scenario for Sky would be that Froome cannot adapt to the new challenges he has faced this year as his rivals had to change to be able to overcome the dominance of Sky last year. He will also benefit from the return to full fitness of Richie Porte and it will be interesting to see if the Tasmanian will be asked to put his grand tour ambitions on hold for another year to ensure that Froome is best equipped for the 2015 Tour de France that will surely be his and Sky’s main target.

Vincenzo Nibali is rumoured to be considering a Giro Tour double in 2015 and VCSE would suggest that the Giro is locked on as the Astana rider ‘gets’ the symbolism of his home grand tour. His team have options now, following a strong performance by Fabio Aru at this years Vuelta to go with his fine result from the Giro earlier in the year. Contador will be at the Tour, with Movistar more likely to back Quintana next year despite resigning Valverde for three(!) more years this week. VCSE will make the bold assertion now that Alejandro Valverde will not win a grand tour in the next three years, even though he will target the Vuelta again next year. Another rider who will not win a grand tour is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha team leader has probably beaten Froome by a nose to the rider who’s had the ‘worst’ year, but this has slipped below the radar due to lower expectations. Admittedly dogged by injury ahead of the Giro, the fact is that Rodriguez has looked out of sorts in every race he has ridden since then. Can he bounce back in 2015? He’ll try for the Giro again, but it’s hard to see the circumstances in which he could beat Nibali.

Back to the Vuelta, the final week had its high point (for your correspondent at least) with Adam Hansen’s late breakaway to win on stage 19. It’s almost inevitable that Hansen will break the record for consecutive grand tour appearances now and his case for inclusion in his Lotto team can only be helped by the occasional stage win. This victory wasn’t quite the solo ride that saw him take a stage in last years Giro but it was just as enjoyable to watch. John Degenkolb picked up another stage win, but his points jersey victory was only confirmed on the final day as Valverde had been in close attention in the contest.

Reading the various posts and articles written after the Vuelta there’s been some suggestion that it has been the best of the grand tours this year. I’m not so sure about this. There’s surely a tendency to focus on what’s most immediate in the memory and much as this years edition has been enjoyable it’s hasn’t eclipsed some of the things that stick in the mind from this years Tour for example. It hasn’t gone to the wire like last years Vuelta either, no matter what you might think of the validity of Chris Horner’s win in 2013. It’s been a good race, with a worthy winner and an interesting route, but probably not the classic that some are suggesting.

Continue reading Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

Heavy climbs and picture break up – VCSE’s Racing Digest #36

Vuelta a Espana week 1 Review 

There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into  a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.

Alejandro Valverde – Hinault to Quintana’s Lemond?

Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”

Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its  3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.

Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.

The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.

VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.

What’s up with this picture?

Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised)  and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.

Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently  denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.

It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “..no better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

Continue reading Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Tour de France week 2 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #33

Nibali running out of rivals

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its first rest day speculation turned to who would be the next rider to bring a challenge to Vincenzo Nibali’s reclaimed race lead. Nibali had handed off the yellow jersey that he had claimed with his stage 2 victory in Sheffield to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin for a whole day before he took it back with an emphatic win atop the La Planche de Belle Filles.

Can he overtake Nibali? - Alejandro Valverde
Can he overtake Nibali? – Alejandro Valverde

Alberto Contador’s exit, like that of Chris Froome beforehand, had removed the Tour of its pre-race favourites and potentially leaves this years edition in search of a narrative beyond a seemingly locked on Nibali overall victory in Paris on Sunday. Sky touted Richie Porte as their new team leader, but this was a rider who had seemed out of sorts ever since he was switched from a defence of his 2013 Paris Nice title. That decision was an early indicator that Sky would be backing a solitary horse this season in Froome, although Porte was unfortunate to miss a further opportunity to lead when he missed the Giro through illness. Dave Brailsford has a reputation as a straight talker, however it’s hard to see that continue if he suggests that a rider is “..climbing better than ever” and said rider (Porte) folds on the first day of alpine climbing. The Tasmanian looked as if he knew he was a folorn hope as he was the first of the depeleted GC contenders to loose the wheel on the stage to Chamrousse.

Porte fell from second place to sixteenth and with more than ten minutes lost to Nibali conceded that he wouldn’t be a factor in this years race any longer leaving Sky looking for a plan C. As Nibali took his third stage win the GC shake up saw Alejandro Valverde move into second place and three French riders in the top ten. Valverde still occupies second place and perhaps more in search of story than a basis in reality it’s been suggested that he will challenge Nibali in the Pyrenees. With one Pyrenean stage down Nibali the Movistar attack has looked toothless so far. It’s certainly true that Nibali’s Astana teammates are seen as the chink in his otherwise impressive armour, but the truth is they haven’t performed any better or worse than domestiques on the other squads. Valverde had supporters in hand as the peloton climbed the Porte de Bales while Nibali had none, but by the time the latter crested the summit Valverde had been dropped. The two were back together at the finish, won in fine style from the break by Mick Rogers, but the chance for Valverde to take back some seconds had been missed.

Another rider leaving the Tour in the Alps was Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. The American had suffered a number of crashes including a spectacular coming together with Simon Gerrans at the finish of stage 7. In pain ahead of stage 11 Talansky was unable to make it back into the peloton and at one point was being gapped further by his teammates drilling the pack on the front. He made the time cut, just, after a period sat on the roadside where he either begged to continue or was persuaded to carry on. The truth of that isn’t clear, but if Talansky ever does a biography there’s a chapter that could write itself. He finished the stage, but was gone the next day.

Yesterday’s stage saw a twist to the developing story of the French GC challenge. AG2R have two riders in the top ten at opposite ends of the age scale. Leading the young riders classification at the start of the day was Roman Bardet and he was in the last of the podium places also. His teammate Jean Christophe Peraud was in sixth place, but post stage moved to fourth. It hasn’t always been clear who is leading the team, perhaps the plan was to see who could rise to the challenge across a three week grand tour. Peraud had been very unlucky last year with crashes and broken bones. His stated aim is to finish on the podium in Paris, but that is the goal of the younger rider too. The chances are that this particular story has a few more changes of direction in it yet, but Peraud is the stronger time trial rider and he could end up heading the two.

It’s perhaps less clear if there will be an AG2R rider on the podium. Bardet lost third place and the young riders jersey to FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot yesterday.The story of his descending travails have been repeated ad infinitum this year, but it was his climbing that did for Bardet yesterday. It would be interesting to know if Pinot’s motivation for attacking on the climb to Port des Bales yesterday was too gap Bardet or to build an advantage on the descent against riders (like Bardet) who are still stronger going downhill. Perhaps it was both? Outside of the Nibali / Valverde contest, it’s the battle for supremacy among the French riders that creates the most interest.

While the VCSE predictions have been pretty poor this year with neck stuck firmly out it’s got to be a Nibali win on Sunday. You have to suspect that Valverde will be happy with second and he has the teammates to protect his second place over the last of the mountain stages before his superior time trial ability will cement the position in place for Paris. Of the French riders it’s less clear. It seems likely that there will be a Frenchman on the podium in 2014,it’s just a question of who. There might yet be another reversal of fortune if Tejay Van Garderen can take back some time today and tomorrow, but that seems like a long shot. A repeat of his 2012 fifth place seems the best to hope for.

 Best of the Plan B’s

Tinkoff Saxo have given an indicator of just how strong they would have been in support of Alberto Contador with two stage wins since his withdrawal on stage 10. Mick Rogers win yesterday was proceeded by a victory for Rafal Majka on stage 14. Both of the wins have come from breaks, but the crucial thing is that the Tinkoff riders have beens strong enough to stay away. In contrast Sky have struggled to really be a factor since the demise of Froome and Porte. Garmin had Jack Bauer come within metres of a stage win on Sunday after another long break that had echoes of Tony Martin’s glorius failure at last years Vuelta.

AG2R lead the teams classement built on the platform of Bardet’s and Peraud’s high placings, but perhaps the team that’s managed a high profile through improvising results this year is Lotto. Andre Greipel has taken a stage win, but Tony Gallopin’s day in yellow was followed by the same rider taking a stage win. Another rider having a good Tour is Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff who now has two stage win’s under his belt from the lumpier stages. Marcel Kittel has struggled with the climbs, but will no doubt come good for the main event in Paris on Sunday. Greipel should be in second, but Kristoff is in the form of his life and may scramble to the next best title after Kittel.

The final week 

Two more stages in the Pyrenee’s including the iconic climbs of the Peyresourde, Tourmalet and Hautacam should provide some interesting viewing. Expect Europcar to get into the breaks as the team don’t have anything to show for the race so far in their first year on the world tour. VCSE predicts a breakaway win for both stages as Nibali will probably have his hands full covering Valverde. Movistar may yet go for it on the Hautacam stage tomorrow, but it feels more likely that Valverde will want to be conservative and protect his second place.

This years race has been full of surprises though and none the worse for it. It feels like it could only be misfortune that could rob Nibali of his first Tour de France win and that would make him one of a select band to have won all three grand tours. The excitement is likely to come from the French GC battle and the final day’s fireworks on the Champs Elysee.

Tour de France 2014 Grand Depart

Stages 1 & 2 – Leeds to Harrogate & York to Sheffield

Long before their son Marcel was a glint in Herr and Frau Kittel’s eye another German from different time said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. If the script (if not the plan) had been followed yesterday we would have seen Mark Cavendish claim his first ever maillot jaune on the finishing straight in Harrogate on stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France. Instead his Omega Pharma Quick Step team are trying to come up with a plan B for the riders left in their squad after Cavendish withdrew from the race ahead of today’s stage as a result of the injury he suffered in the final moments of yesterdays sprint.

Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 - TdF 2014
Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 – TdF 2014

Everything had been going so well up until then. If there was one thing that couldn’t be guaranteed for the second grand tour opening weekend to take place in the British Isles in 2014 it would be the weather. There was much at stake to show that Yorkshire was going to prove to be the right choice for the opening stages of this years race. The greatest risk came from the possibility that the dales and moorland that much of the race would be run over during the weekend could be shrouded in mist and rain if we were ‘enjoying’ typical British weather conditions. This years Giro d’Italia ‘Big Start’ in Ireland was beset with wet conditions pretty much from start to finish and while this didn’t dampen the enthusiasm it did impact on the spectacle. It was extremely fortunate that any rain that was forecast had pretty much disappeared by the time stage 1 got underway yesterday.

The crowds that gathered ahead of the start in Leeds for the signing on ceremony where the shape of things to come and both stages have been characterised by huge crowds wherever there was a climb, town or village for the Peloton to pass through or over. And these weren’t just crowds or two, three or even four deep at the roadside. Any vantage point or bank that afforded a view over the heads at the side of the route was packed out with fans. Sure, many of them would have been asking their neighbour “Where’s Wiggo?” but that wasn’t the point, Yorkshire had turned out for their very own version of a grand day out. The waves of people that crowded onto the parts of the stage that went up, particularly the few categorised climbs were incredible, an almost perfect copy of an Alpe d’Huez or Angliru but with a British twist. There were few of the fancy dress runners sprinting alongside the riders yesterday, the way through the crowd was narrow but not bad tempered as it had been in the Giro earlier in the year.

If the Yorkshire Grand Depart is going to be judged a success for one reason it should be for the sheer number of people who felt engaged to come and stand by the road and watch the race go by. Will it encourage more cyclists? Will it inspire a young boy or girl to become a racer? Who knows. What is clear is that there’s an appetite to watch road racing on British roads at the highest level and if it makes it easier to stage races on closed roads in the UK that can only be a good thing.

As far as the actual racing goes, yesterdays stage might have seemed a little dull if it had been held during the middle of the race in a dull French department. The three man break that went off the front pretty much from the get go yesterday contained the oldest man in the race Jens Voigt. As far as breakaways go Jens is the perfect rider and in this situation he was a gift for the commentators as they can get maximum mileage out his catchphrase, career longevity and the fact this is his retirement year. It might have been a harder race to call if the other two riders in the break, two Frenchman who’s names escape me, had made it stick and Jens had slipped back into the clutches of the peloton. As it went the Trek rider stayed away long enough to claim the KOM jersey as well as the most aggressive rider award.

There was almost another surprise in store from Trek as the peloton tackled the final drag uphill in Harrogate. Fabian Cancellara broke away on the right hand side of the road as OPQS led the bunch on the left. If Cavendish’s team had thought they could impose some discipline on the opposition in the final kilometres, Cancellara’s attack that was followed quickly by one from Cofidis exposed them. By now Kittel’s Giant Shimano train was moving their rider to the front and Cavendish was losing momentum as the sprinters got tangled with some of the one day specialists like Orica’s Simon Gerrans and Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. As Cavendish tried to get onto a wheel he butted heads with Gerrans. Gerrans moved left but was blocked by Europcar sprinter Bryan Coquard who sent Gerrans back into Cavendish’s path. In a moment both riders were down, Cavendish heavily and the perfect start that most of the fans had wanted was denied.

The heart would have wanted a Cavendish win. Christian Prudhomme probably wished for one too; he’s given him two bites at this particular cherry now. The head said Kittel though* and it seems likely that he would have claimed a second opening day win and another over Cavendish even without the accident. The 2014 Tour had got off to a fairytale start but it had, for one rider anyway, had a nightmare finish.

Mark Cavendish never looked likely to start stage 2 and despite the combined cross fingers of the OPQS squad he announced his withdrawal from the Tour, further depleting the already meagre British rider pool at this years race. The stage promised much, seven categorised climbs including one with just 5km to go as the race came through the back streets of Sheffield.

There was a bigger break today and one or two might have fancied their chances of staying away, but in the end the catch was made and we began to anticipate a Peter Sagan victory. The preceding climbs along with some ill timed mechanicals had taken their toll and there were one or two riders who lost time on the day, Richie Porte’s miserable 2014 continued as he fell behind after a crash. But it was the final climb up the Jenkin Road in Sheffield where the stage came alive. The GC contenders had decided that the best place to be was at the head of the race and Alberto Contador was the first to show his wheel at the head of the bunch. If Chris Froome spends his time looking at his stem, Contador only has eyes for Froome and he may come to regret climbing with his head twisted around to look at the Sky rider. Froome looked in trouble on Jenkin Road, not anything serious but another example of how he can suffer on a double digit gradient.

As the ‘summit’ was reached Froome steadied and attacked. This time it was Contador who was caught, seemingly unable to respond and it was the Sky rider who might have achieved the victory in today’s GC mindgames. This wasn’t the end though. If the script was going to be followed now was the time for Sagan to strike out for home. As AG2R’s Peraud made a bid for victory, Sagan stayed back, allowing the potentially dangerous Greg van Avermaet to go clear.

No one expected Vincenzo Nibali to spring an attack though; script torn up! With hindsight VCSE was reminded of Niki Terpstra riding away from the bunch at this years Paris Roubaix, everyone else looked at one another and by then it was too late. So Nibali goes into yellow and barring (literally) accidents on stage 5 he could hold onto it for at least the next week. Whether or not the Astana team leader has the legs to contend for the GC for three weeks is another thing entirely however. It remains to be seen whether this was Nibali taking an opportunistic win to set up a tilt at the race or was he just claiming the scraps that he feels he must go for from the the Froome Contadaor battle to come.

The opening stages of this years Tour have deviated from the predicted outcomes and have been all the better for it. Whether or not the rest of the race continues to be unpredictable remains to be seen, but it would be impossible to argue that Yorkshire hasn’t delivered as promised the greatest of Grand Departs.

See the VCSE 2014 TdF Preview 


The curious case of no* Brits at the Tour

While putting the Tour preview to bed this morning VCSE was missing the developing story on social media that two more British riders were being omitted from their respective Tour teams. David Millar, apparently inked in last week was binned after what his team determined to be a sub par performance at the British road nationals. Alex Dowsett was withdrawn due to what was described as ‘breathing problems’. At the time of writing there doesn’t appear to be any more to the Movistar riders withdrawal (Alex hasn’t commented) and it must be gutting for him after missing out on the Olympics in 2012 due to a broken leg.

Down and out of the Tour - David Millar (pic copyright James Start)
Down and out of the Tour – David Millar (pic copyright James Start)

Movistar had obviously seen the benefits of including the Essex based rider when they announced their line up, especially as stage 3 would cover some of the roads that Dowsett trains on week in week out. As popular as riders like Mark Cavendish are (ironically another Essex roads rider) Dowsett would be have been guaranteed lots of support on his home roads.

The Millar scenario is different and has a whiff of Wiggins about it, although for entirely different reasons. Millar was the marquee rider on the Garmin team when they first joined the (now) world tour and won a stage at the Tour as recently as 2012. Long since cast in the role of domestique / sage Millar announced at the end of last season that 2014 would be his final year and he has made a number of valedictory appearances in races this year.

It was always unlikely that Millar would trouble the GC if he raced the Tour but the sheer bloody mindedness of the rider suggested that he would identify one or two stages to ‘go hard or go home’ in search of a breakaway stage win. He didn’t feature in yesterdays GB national road race and withdrew from his arguably stronger event, the TT, last week in an effort to be fit for the Tour. Millar had outed himself as part of the Tour team by accident a couple of weeks earlier when he tweeted that he was ‘packed’ for the Tour and was painfully prescient when he suggested that a lack of contact from his Garmin colleagues last night could signify that he had lost his Tour place. Whether or not his deselection has “killed” his relationship with his team remains to be seen, but it evidences that Garmin want to make a serious tilt at the Tour rather than allow Millar a sentimental journey.

Garmin had a disastrous start to the Giro earlier this year losing team leader Dan Martin before the first stage was even over. It’s entirely possible that there’s a commercial imperative for the team to put in a stronger showing at the Tour. The emphasis is on the team here. Ryder Hesjedal was able to put in a decent showing pretty much unsupported at the Giro. Millar could have delivered views of the Garmin jersey on television similarly, if by a slighty different route to Hesjedal but maybe the team and the sponsor want more. Maybe the 2014 Tour is all about the team delivering a result, even if ultimately it will be an individual (in this case Andrew Talansky) who takes the plaudits.

If that was the case though why wait until five days before the Tour starts to decide. Would Millar really have been such a deadweight to the team, particularly as the toughest stages are back ended on this years route? Burying bad news about another British crowd favourite not taking part in the Yorkshire Grand Depart is pretty difficult at a time when even the mainstream media start to take a proper interest in the sport.

With the emergence of a British team that has been incredibly successful on the world stage, two Tour wins and two huge hauls of Olympic gold medals since the last time the Tour visited the UK it seems perverse that there will only be three British riders at the start this weekend (and one of those flies under a flag of convenience). It’s likely that the organisers, ASO and the team in Yorkshire, didn’t think anything else could go wrong after Bradley Wiggins omission by Sky, but the absence of Millar in particular is the nasty tasting icing on that rather inedible cake.

* well.. not many anyway

VCSE’s 2014 Tour de France preview

General Classification 

This time a year ago the talk was not so much of who would win the Tour but the margin of victory. With the exception of Tirreno Adriatico Chris Froome had been victorious in everything he had entered and he was the firm favourite ahead of the opening stages in Corsica. This year the pre-race chatter has been dominated by the will they, won’t they (non) selection of Bradley Wiggins for Sky’s Tour team.

In yellow again this year? - Alberto Contador
In yellow again this year? – Alberto Contador

In some ways this has been a welcome distraction for Froome as his season to date has been punctuated by injury, illness and being found wanting by some of his chief rivals for the GC this year, most recently Alberto Contador in the Criterium du Dauphine. As defending champion and undisputed leader of the Sky team Froome is of course among the favourites for the 101st edition of the Tour. The key here is that he is merely among the favourites, rather than being the outstanding candidate to take the general classification. Sky’s domination of the race in recent years does allow this rivals to remain somewhere below the radar however. Contador, who gave the impression of a rider clinging on by his fingernails in last years race has looked back to his best this year, showing his best form when he has wanted to demonstrate his superiority of a rival like he did to Alejandro Valverde at this years Pais Vasco.

Contador looks most likely to break the Sky hold over the GC, but there are other riders waiting in the wings who may yet cause an upset on the way. The aforementioned Valverde has looked other worldly at times, particularly in the early season. It’s hard to imagine that the Spaniard will be any more than a podium contender though. If Movistar had wanted to win this year they should have picked Nairo Quintana, last years runner up and this years Giro victor. Last years Giro winner Vicenzo Nibali should arguably have been the man cast in Contador’s role this year. Utterly dominant in the 2013 Giro and Tirreno Adriatico (where he crucially had the beating of Froome) Nibali began to fray around the edges at the Vuelta and he hasn’t looked anywhere near his 2013 best this season. Nibali was often a thorn in Sky’s side at the 2012 Tour though and he has the ability to hurt the GC riders in the mountain stages.  A podium is a possibility, but VCSE suspects that a stage win or two may prove to be the goal for the Astana leader.

In Quintana’s absence the young guns should be well represented by US pairing Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky. BMC struggled last year trying to accomodate two leaders in Cadel Evans and van Garderen. Evans’ absence this year should help Tejay but he would have to be an outside bet for a podium place. A top ten is more likely. Talansky’s Garmin team have demonstrated their mastery of in race tactics, particularly when targeting a stage win as with Dan Martin in the Pyrenees last year. Talansky was in the right place at the right time in the Dauphine when he stole the race lead from Contador on the last stage to win the overall. He’s a stronger candidate for the podium than van Garderen but once again a top 10 feels more likely. This is Talansky’s opportunity to improve on his result from last years Tour and to become the rider around who future Garmin Tour efforts are built now that Martin’s year has been disrupted by injury.

Aside of the main contenders Joaquim Rodriguez was a fairly late addition for the Tour after his plans for the Giro were upset by injury in the Ardennes. Rodriguez took a stealthy podium last year but it’s harder to see him repeating that result 12 months later. Belkin, in the form of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam were a bit of surprise package last year. The Dutch outfit have the motivation (if not pressure) of the announcement that their team sponsor are withdrawing at the end of this season and Mollema has looked in good form in recent weeks. Again it’s an unlikely podium, but with the teams sponsor difficulties a headline grabbing stage win could be the target for the either rider.

World champion Rui Costa was successful with stage wins last year but his goal this year will be a stronger showing on GC. He’s managed a win in the rainbow stripes this season which deals with any superstitious fears that may have existed for the rider about the supposed ‘curse’ but it’s unlikely he will be looking to repeat wins in 2014. France demands at least one stage win in the race it gave to the world. Last year we had a long wait for Christophe Riblon to come good for AG2R. VCSE offers the following names to look out for at this years Tour for GC contention and / or a stage win; Roman Bardet (AG2R) and  Kevin Reza (Europcar).

With the loss of Vacansoleil and the elevation of Europcar to the world tour it’s meant that we have a bit more variety in the wildcard invitations this year. Anglo-German Net App Endura have a decent shout of a top 10 with Leopold Konig after the teams ‘dry run’ at last years Vuelta. IAM cycling were in contention for the overall at the Tour de Suisse and will bring a strong squad to the Tour with previous stage winners in Chavanel and Haussler. Stage wins may well be the target for the team, but they have riders that could prove to be contenders on GC also.

So who will actually win? Putting aside the fact the Froome is hard to like because of the Wiggins non-selection he remains the rider most likely to win this years Tour, albeit with more caveats than last year. Contador looks super strong and if Valverde and Nibali both bring their A game the Sky rider will face more assaults than he did a year ago. Also Froome’s most trusted helper Richie Porte is struggling for form and it remains to be seen if Mikel Nieve can establish a similar bond with his leader. Sky have assembled a very experienced unit with a good mix of riders who can shepherd Froome through the tricky stages like Arenberg as well as the type of stage that saw him cut adrift by cross winds last year. This is Contador’s best chance of a repeat Tour victory, but he has lost a key helper in Roman Kreuziger due to bio passport irregularities just days ahead of the grand depart. Will this upset the Tinkoff Saxo applecart? Unlikely, but anything that chips away at Contador’s confidence will be to Froome’s benefit. Every GC rider faces the difficult stages in Yorkshire and on the Roubaix cobbles and this could lead to some riders going out of contention before the peloton reaches the Vosges for the start of the climbing proper.

VCSE’s GC predictions – 1. Froome 2. Contador 3. Talansky

The sprinters battle 

Mark Cavendish will have another go at claiming the maillot jaune for the first time in his career. Cavendish could place some of the blame for missing out on yellow on last years first stage on the Orica team bus getting stuck at the finish line, but as the race went on it became clear that he’s no longer the man to beat in sprint stages. Marcel Kittel may have ‘stolen’ Cav’s jersey on that first stage in Corsica but by beating the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider in Paris it looked as if the crown and sceptre for the king of the fast men was going to the younger man. Even if Cavendish wasn’t targeting the win into his Mum’s home town of Harrogate on Saturday he can rely on a partisan UK crowd and the media to make it ‘his’ goal. In some ways there’s more pressure on Cavendish to win this stage than their will be to beat Kittel on the Champs Elysee in three weeks time. Both riders have reconnoitered the opening stages and while Kittel may respect his rival he won’t be sentimental about handing the win to Cavendish. Much as VCSE would like to see Cavendish take yellow it seems more likely that Kittel will take the lions share of the stage wins and will lead the GC into the second stage.

Can he wear yellow?  - Mark Cavendish
Can he wear yellow? – Mark Cavendish

Peter Sagan only managed a single stage victory at last years Tour but should see a third straight win in the points competition. Sagan could target a victory as early as stage 2 which has been described as a Yorkshire version of Liege Bastogne Liege. He will also be among the favourites for the stage that takes in part of the Paris Roubaix cobbled route on stage 5. Sagan could have a rival this year in Orica’s Simon Gerrans, a rider in good form who while unable to match Sagan in a sprint is as least as good if not better over the climbs.

Andre Greipel is reduced to playing second, if not third fiddle to Cavendish and Kittel these days and will need some kind of mishap to befall the leading riders to be in with a chance of stage win at this years Tour. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare has won the internal battle to become lead rider and could be another outside bet for a win, but is more likely to contest stage podiums.

KOM is harder to predict this year. It’s possible that we might see a repeat of 2012 where the rider in the break secures the points and the jersey and this seems more likely than a repeat of last year where Quintana took a sweep of the KOM and young riders jerseys on his way to second place.

Key stages of the 2014 Tour de France 

Armchair fans can watch the race live on ITV4 and British Eurosport again this year. Who you choose may depend on your choice of television provider but it’s a shame that Eurosport won’t repeat their pairing of Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly like they did at the Giro. Hatch seemed to get the best out of Kelly and their commentary is preferable to the prospect of Carlton Kirby in the lead chair. Kirby is as eccentric as Phil Liggett is predictable but ITV4 will probably win out thanks to a stronger presentation team in Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman outweighing Liggetts spoonerisms.

With a UK grand depart it’s also a lot easier to go and see the race in person although the peloton will disappear in a bit of flash on the flat stage 3 into London. The fan parks in Yorkshire and London may be better places to watch the action before heading to the finish line to see the final sprints.

Stages 1 thru’ 3 – Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, Cambridge to London Sat, Sun, Mon 5,6,7th July

The UK based stages will be worth a watch to see if Mark Cavendish can claim his first ever yellow jersey on stage 1 and to see if there are any early GC casualties on the challenging stage 2 that has 9 catergorised climbs.

Stage 5 – Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut Weds 9th July 

The stage that takes in 15 kilometres of the Paris Roubaix cobbles is otherwise a flat, transitional stage. GC riders will be looking to stay out of trouble and it’s likely to be a chance for the rouleurs from each team to grab some glory with a stage win.

Stage 10 – Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles Mon 14th July

The summit finish where Froome won the stage in 2012 and Wiggins took the maillot jaune revisits in 2014 after a testing stage the previous day where the Tour takes in the first cat 1 climb of the race and the highest peak in the Vosges the Grand Ballon. Stage 10 has three other cat 1 climbs besides the Belle Filles along with a pair of cat 2 and a single cat 3 climb over its 162kms.

Stage 14 – Grenoble to Risoul Sat 19th July 

The toughest day the peloton will face in the Alps this year. The stage includes the Col d’Izoard one of the most iconic climbs that the Tour uses and home to some of its most dramatic scenery. The stage has a cat 1 summit finish at Risoul

Stage 17 – St Gaudens to St Lary Pla D’Adet Weds 23rd July

Three cat 1 climbs including the Peyresourde before finishing with a HC summit finish of just over 10km at slightly more than 8%. It’s the shortest stage outside of the TT stages but should be a tough one.

Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam Thurs 24th July

The final day of climbing in this years Tour takes in the famed climbs of the Tourmalet and finishing atop the Hautacam. Both climbs are HC and account for roughly 20% of the stages entire distance. If the GC isn’t decided by now it’s still possible that the TT  on Saturday could provide a final shake up.

Stage 19 – Bergerac to Perigueux Sat 26th July 

The penultimate stage has the potential to be a TT that’s actually worth watching live or merely be the icing on the GC cake for the holder of the maillot jaune. If there are still small time gaps between the leading contenders then riders will be looking over the shoulders as the strong testers take back time on them. If Froome is leading at this point, this stage is likely to increase the gap. If it’s Contador he will have to hope that he has built up enough of a cushion in the Pyrenees.


VCSE’s 2013 Tour de France Preview http://wp.me/p3g8fZ-bUtbN

VCSE’s guide to the Col d’Izoard  http://wp.me/p3g8fZ-bQWIg


2014 Tour de France route
2014 Tour de France route