Giro d’Italia 2014 – final week and round up

Giro d’Italia 2014 week 3 – stages 17 through 21 

After the Stelvio ‘controversy’ the peloton awarded itself a fourth rest day on Wednesday’s stage to Vittorio Veneto. As riders placed their feet in bowls of hot water and nursed a Cup a soup overnight a collective hissy fit was aired officially (between the team’s organisation, the UCI and RCS) and unofficially on social media about the legitmacy of Nairo Quintana’s stage win and capture of the race lead from Rigoberto Uran. The likelihood of teams withdrawing enmasse was never that much of a possibility and by the end of the race any lingering indignation looked academic.

Grio d'Italia 2014 winner - Nairo Quintana
Grio d’Italia 2014 winner – Nairo Quintana

From VCSE’s vantage point on the sofa it seems that any suggestion that the race ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ be neutralised disappeared when Sky’s Dario Cataldo said ‘no thanks!’ to the offer of an extra layer of clothing and his musette and went charging off on the descent. Yes, riders did stop at the top of the Stelvio, but at random. VCSE didn’t see a single example of an entire group of riders coming to a halt. The apparent ‘smoking gun’ evidence against the Quintana group, that included other GC contenders like Ryder Hesjedal, was the photo of the Columbian descending behind a moto with the pillion holding a red flag. It wasn’t altogether clear what the flag signified but it certainly wasn’t to indicate that the race had been neutralised. Whether it was safe (or not) to continue to race the descent off the Stelvio seems a moot point. Were there any crashes? In the (undoubted) confusion that followed the sum up seems to be those that chose to race, did and anyone else suffered the consequences of that.

The lack of interest shown by the new Maglia Rosa and his GC rivals the following day bore testimony at the difficulty of the previous day however. No one watching, let alone taking part, could deny it hadn’t been a tough stage with the addition of the climb to Val Martello added a 14% insult to the Stelvio / Gavia injury. The peloton crossed the line more than 15 minutes down on eventual stage winner Stefano Pirazzi. Last years KOM winner had been out of contention for that prize since the carnage of the Cassino stage but he salvaged some pride for himself and further built on Bardiani’s success at this years race.

A break of sorts was allowed the win the following day as well as the Giro returned to the mountains for its penultimate summit finish. This years KOM and (yet another) Columbian, Trek’s Julian Arredondo took the stage from compatriot Fabio Duarte reinforcing the thought that the race was rapidly becoming some kind of South American benefit. Quintana arrived with Uran, but it was Cadel Evans who was the biggest loser of the day falling off the podium and almost out of the top ten.

This years edition of the Giro was well and truly back loaded with climbs and if the Stelvio / Gavia double wasn’t enough there was still the Zoncolan to look forward to and possibly shake the GC up further. Ahead of that an uphill TT, 27km in length of which more than two-thirds averaged nearly 8% maxing out at 14%. No TT bikes here then and the climbers and GC boys to the fore. Breakaway fixtures Cataldo and Lotto’s Tim Wellens performed well for their top ten placings but the podium spots went to the GC contenders. Very nearly the ride of the stage went to Fabio Aru, just missing out on the win, but claiming a podium place from Pierre Rolland. The home crowd showed partisan support to a home rider who was now in with the best chance of a repeat Italian victory, but Quintana was the expressionless asassin of local hopes as he put 17 seconds into Aru at the line.

And so to the ‘final’ GC stage; Zoncolan. Actually, the profile shared a reasonable amount with Tuesdays three peak extravaganza adding a cat 1 and 2 climb into the mix ahead of the summit finish. A decent sized break had got away here as well and the finale provided a race within a race as we waited to see who would take the stage and could anyone threaten Quintana’s lead. The latter really wasn’t ever in doubt. While Quintana rode much of the climb unsupported, Uran hasn’t really looked capable of attacking anyone over the three weeks and certainly not since he took the Maglia Rosa. It was an OPQS rider who did the damage to split the final group to pieces, but that was Wout Poels.

Up the road stage 11 breakaway winner was involved in a dual with emerging Bardiani (yes, them again) rider Francesco Bongiorno. In truth, Rogers looked the stronger of the two even if Bongiorno hadn’t lost out when an attempt to ‘help’ him hadn’t backfired and pushed him into Rogers wheel and out of his pedal. If Rogers first win had been unexpected then a second on this stage and this climb was perhaps even more so. Rogers had more help on this one, crucially Tinkoff Saxo had two experienced men in the break, but even so the win wasn’t universally accalaimed.

Five minutes behind and below, while Rogers was helped from his bike by team owner Tinkoff, Quintana was making serene progress up the Zoncolan in attendance with a trio of QPQS outriders. If there wasn’t going to be a fight between the two Columbian’s there wasn’t much of a battle between those riders contending for the final podium place. Aru had already done the damage to Rolland and stealing a few more seconds on the line was just proving a point. You almost hoped for a Hinault, Lemond style Alpe du Huez celebration by Quintana and Uran as the line approached but despite being awarded the same time the wasn’t any overt sign of cameraderie. In the final analysis it was the Zoncolan itself that provided the drama on the day with unruly fans and the riders fighting the climb more than each other.

The final day’s parade into Trieste was always likely to finish in a sprint, although quite a few riders had a stab at winning from a break. At one stage three time stage winner Nacer Bouhanni looked like he would be out of contention, but his stalwart lead out man Sebastien Chavanel managed to pull him back to the front only for Giant’s Luka Mezgec to show once again that the team have depth behind Degenkolb and Kittel.

Giro d’Italia 2014 wrap up 

So what does this years Giro tell us about the state of play in 2014 and looking ahead to the rest of this season and the next? Nairo Quintana justified his favourite status and everyone (in particular his rivals) admits he would have won the race without needing any advantage that might have been stolen on the Stelvio stage.

It’s a leap further to suggest, as Movistar have done, that Quintana was right to target the Giro over the Tour following his second place in France last year. Of course, having made the point that Quintana was an unknown quantity going into the Giro and thus wasn’t an automatic favourtite as a result the same could be said of Chris Froome going into this years Tour. If Quintana has been so strong at the end of May it does make you wonder how good he could have been at the start of July. Movistar look like the team best placed to control a race from the front too. Without taking anything away from Quintana’s win it does feel a little like the easier option has been taken in not pitting the Columbian against Froome this  year. Of course, the Tour lacks the really steep (in sections) parcours of the Giro but it’s a shame that we will have to most likely wait until 2015 to see a Froome, Quintana match up.

The VCSE view on Rigoberto Uran ahead of the Giro was (to paraphrase Eminem) that the real Uran needed to stand up. Uran had looked second best against established OPQS rider Michael Kwiatowski  so far this year and other than the stage win where he took the Maglia Rosa didn’t look as if team leadership sat well on his shoulders. Of course, there’s no shame in finishing on the podium at a grand tour but it does look as if Uran lacks the final few percent that separate the contenders from the champions. The OPQS team selection plays a part too though, lacking enough strong climbers to go with Poels and Pauwels to match up against Movistar and the distractions of the team management making too much of the Stelvio incident.

Perhaps a bigger disappointment, at least for the home fans, was Domenico Pozzovivo. The AG2R rider carried form into the race and at the end of the first week looked like the form rider. He flattered to deceive however and while a top ten was the VCSE prediction ahead of the race, Pozzovivo didn’t fulfil his own prophesy that he would “..attack”. Cadel Evans faded sharply in the final week, his strategy of sticking with the leader during each stage back firing completely on the Stelvio stage as he got caught with Uran as Quintana rode away. Once Quintana had taken the jersey Evans looked less and less likely to not lose time. This is likely to be his last time as a challenger for GC in a grand tour.

Fabio Aru had been touted as a climbing talent ahead of the Giro, but Astana had him in a supporting role to Michele Scarponi who had joined the team to become the number two GC rider behind Vincenzo Nibali. Third place, some strong climbing performances and his win on stage 15 puts Aru into ‘great white hope’ category for Italian GC hopes in the next five years and for now the heir apparent to Nibali. It will be interesting to see now if Astana give Scarponi another shot at a grand tour in this years Vuelta or will Aru be elevated to team leader without having the role handed to him by events. Of course, Aru isn’t the only young Italian rider who has grand tour credentials in the peloton, but he has looked the most convincing this week and everyone will always take notice of an apparent ‘surprise’ emergence, just as they did with a certain Columbian last year.

Nacer Bouhanni’s win of the points jersey is an interesting one. This blog lauded Mark Cavendish’s victory last year as a triumph in a contest that doesn’t tend to favour sprinters. Does Bouhanni’s win put him on a par with Cavendish or was the competition less this year? Certainly, as mentioned in the Giro preview the first rank of sprinters were largely missing (Kittel went home after the Irish stages). If nothing else Bouhanni, out of contract this year, has put himself in the shop window and if he can take Chavanel with him could bring some much needed sprint credentials to somewhere like Sky next year.

Perhaps the happiest team in terms of results would be Bardiani with three stage victories in this years Giro. Bardiani took a stage last year, but the team that featured most at the front of the race was Vini Fantini only for them to fall foul of positive drug tests. There’s been no such suspicion about the Bardiani team this year and with the emergence of riders like Aru it’s to be hoped that scandal doesn’t engulf what could be the start of a brighter era for Italian cycling that isn’t tainted by doping.

This years Giro will be remembered as a Columbian renaissance . Amongst the crashes and manufactured controversy Quintana’s win and strong showing from Columbian riders from teams throughout the peloton (as well as the ‘national’ team) it feels as if naturally talented riders are once again coming to the fore. The most numerous nation represented in the top 30 on GC outside of the hosts, Columbian riders took the KOM (Arredondo) as well as four stage wins (Quintana two, Uran and Arredondo one each). Quintana has made the leap in little over a year from a climber to grand tour winner and is the strongest evidence yet of a cleaner doping free peloton.

The trouble with remembering Marco – Giro 2014 week 2 round up

Giro d’Italia 2014 week 2 (ish) – stages 10 through 16

Before we look at the racing consider the unhappy anniversary that was ‘celebrated’ during the second week of this years Giro; Marco Pantani died ten years ago. If the circumstances surrounding Pantani’s death in a Rimini hotel room weren’t uncomfortable enough to remember the sense of awkwardness has been increased as todays riders and commentators have tried to walk the line between recognising his talent while acknowledging his doping.

Marco Pantani - Saint or Sinner?
Marco Pantani – Saint or Sinner?

Marco Pantani’s legacy seems to exist in an in between state, like some kind of lycra clad fallen angel. On the one hand a climber (albeit EPO fuelled) of verve and passion who, at least at the time, was the antithesis of Lance Armstrong. On the other a tragic case who struggled to cope with the literal and figurative come down of his ban (for a high hematocrit rating)  during the ’99 Giro. It might seem ghoulish to wonder how Pantani would be regarded now if he had lived, but it’s reasonable to assume he wouldn’t be venerated quite as much as he is by certain sections of cycling fans and the media. You only have to look back at last years Giro and the subsequent ban of Danilo Di Luca to see that there are no pedestals for the majority of grand tour winners who are Italian and have a chequered history of PED use.

Pantani’s death however tragic and some would argue avoidable has also provided his reputation with the kind of metaphorical cleansing that a Di Luca or Ballan would (if you will allow it) die for. Pantani remains a hero for many, particularly in his native land. Even if the organisers hadn’t pitched this years edition as a Pantani celebration the graffiti that adorns the climbs of the Giro would still have appeared. Not everyone has appreciated the retrospective however. Knowing Pantani’s past, it’s difficult to look at the footage that has been served up as an example of the rider at his best without asking “Could he have done the same thing clean?”. Certainly there are sections of fans out there that feel that Pantani isnt a rider that should be celebrated. Thus after criticism came their way after one Pantani ‘epic’ was shown, commentators had to admit that the celebration was at the very least dividing opinion.

In many ways Marco Pantani reminds VCSE of a (Paul) Gascoigne or (George) Best type figure. Undoubtably talented but how much more or less was achieved due to his substance abuse can never be known. He probably deserves his elevated status as cycling icon as much as he should be condemned as another rider who doped to win. In a Giro where it’s looking increasingly likely that a rider from the new generation will win, might the organisers reflect on the irony of 2014 being the year of Pantani.

This years race entered week two with Cadel Evans in the Maglia Rosa, closely followed by Rigoberto Uran and Rafal Majka around a minute or so further back. Stage 10 following the rest day didn’t offer much of interest for the GC but did see another win for Nacer Bouhanni who continued as the chief beneficiary of Marcel Kittel’s early exit. It was business as usual for the GC on stage 11 too, but in this Pantani year an interesting ‘doping’ (or not) vignette played out when Tinkoff Saxo’s Mick Rogers attacked off the final climb and managed to stay away for the stage win. Rogers has just returned to racing after being cleared of taking a banned substance following a positive test in last years Tour of Bejing. The story behind why Rogers left Sky at the end of 2012 for the then Saxo Bank squad is one we will leave for another day, but it was clear to see that the win meant a lot to the Australian and demonstrates that for many riders who were active in the 2000’s the act of winning has changed.

All of which took us to the individual TT and a change in the lead. Colombian riders have been known to surprise in TT’s and this year it was Uran’s turn to show he had the speed. Evans had a test to forget losing the over a minute on the stage and the GC lead to Uran. Diego Ulissi missed out on a third stage win so far in this years Giro after occupying the hot seat for much of the stage. Nairo Quintana, last years Columbian TT surprise package was further down the order and trying to shift a cold before the peloton reaching the mountains at the weekend.

After two stage wins for wild cards Bardiani, including a repeat stage win for Enrico Battaglin the peloton moved on to the Pantani stage to Montecampione. Winner here was Astana’s new team leader Fabio Aru, just going to show that being tipped for a low profile performance by this blog is the perfect ingredient for serving up a stage win. The curse of VCSE similarly struck Domenico Pozzovivo who dropped to 6th on GC after struggling on this stage and the one before. The home fans, eager to pin their hopes on someone, thus transferred the allegiance from Pozzovivo to Aru after the star performer of the previous weekend saw his form dip. Uran remained in the Maglia Rosa, but his grip seemed as unconvincing as Evans’ had done before him.

And so to today’s (Tuesday) stage. Featuring the Gavia and Stelvio passes that had proved so snow bound the previous year that the race enjoyed another (unscheduled) rest day, this year the peloton would be forced to negotiate not only these two, but a finishing climb to Val Martello, a 14% series of S bends.

The weather almost conspired to neuter the stage. The descent off the Gavia had proved difficult although (for such a injury strewn race) crash free. Snow falling at the top of the Stelvio led to confusion over a neutralised descent. What appeared to happen is that some riders wanted to race despite the conditions and did so. Notable among the hardest of the hard men (everyone was today) was Sky’s Dario Cataldo, first over the top and eschewing dry clothes and food to race away to the valley floor 25km below.

Behind Cataldo a split had developed between the Maglia Rosa group that included Evans and Pozzovivo and an elite selection that included Quintana, Pierre Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal. Quintana was always going to be the strongest climber out of this group and as Uran fell further behind and out of the race lead it was Rolland who cracked first. Hesjedal who had abandoned his decidedly retro eyewear somewhere in a Stelvio snow drift had seemed to be suffering back on the pass yet somehow managed to stay on Quintana’s wheel until almost the bitter end. For all of that, his reward was only to get back into the top 10, Rolland did better to jump from 8th to 4th at Aru’s expense.

So the lead has passed from one Columbian to another. VCSE suggested that Uran needed to prove his worth as a GC contender to his Omega Pharma team at this Giro and to an extent he has. Taking the jersey on the TT shows another side to his climbing and with another (uphill) TT to follow Uran may have another card to play. If he’s to have any chance of wresting the Maglia Rosa from Quintana however, his team need to do a much better job of protecting him. Uran is currently using too many matches trying to match the pace and tactics of his rivals who often have a rider to spare.

Evans somehow remains third and may yet stay there if he can continue to hold a wheel. This is pretty much the tactic he employed at last years race, but the suspicion has to be that he will be less succesful doing this with Quintana than he was with Uran. Uran, until today, managed to ride into the lead and keep it by riding conservatively and not losing much time. He has enough of a lead over Evans in third that suggests that a repeat of last years second place is possible if not the outright win. Quintana, over his cold, looks like the man to beat.

Third place is harder to call. There’s less than a minute between Evans in 3rd and Hesjedal in 9th. It’s easy to see Rolland, Majka or Aru having a good day or two and taking the final podium place, but for all that he has disappointed in week two Pozzovivo is well placed to strike at 3.49 in 7th place.

Tomorrow’s stage should be a bit of a rest day for the GC, but it’s followed by two mountain stages bookending the uphill ITT stage 19. We will see the final GC shake out on Saturday on Monte Zoncolan and if first and second places looked nailed on, the minor places are still wide open. But this is the Giro and the weather and the race may still have some surprises in store. The key stage may yet prove to be the TT on Friday.

And the Oscar goes to.. VCSE’s Racing Digest #31

Tour or California 2014 

Just as he said he would Bradley Wiggins won the Tour of California yesterday. Although his lead had been seconds rather than minutes a Wiggins victory hadn’t really looked in doubt after he took a convincing TT win on stage two. The expected challenger for the stage BMC’s Taylor Phinney had finished a disappointing (for him if not the race) 52 seconds down and two places down on the Team Sky rider. Second place on the day had gone to Garmin’s Rohan Dennis and it was the Australian who was expected to provide the competition for Wiggins for the GC. There’s a changing of the guard at Garmin now as some of the team’s aging roster head into retirement and new younger riders come to the fore. Dennis had gone out fairly early on the stage and set a time, but Wiggins destroyed the field and was the only rider to go sub 24 mins over the 20.1km course.

AToC 2014 winner - Bradley Wiggins
AToC 2014 winner – Bradley Wiggins

If Wiggins looked impressive over a short TT stage it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There was a similar outcome in the last TT stage in a week long stage race he targeted; last years Tour of Britain. Confirmation of just how strong Wiggins was riding came 24 hours later as the race headed to Mount Diablo in a repeat of one of the 2013 editions summit finishes. For everyone that was saying how lean Wiggins was looking in pursuit of the GC (he reputedly lost five kilos between finishing Paris Roubaix and starting the race) there would be someone else, including pointedly BMC DS Max Sciandri, saying that Sky would struggle to support Wiggins on the climbs. On the climb of Mount Diablo Wiggins showed that he wasn’t going to need supporters, he would make the selection himself. For much of the climb on a gradient that suited him Wiggins rode off the front at high tempo shelling riders easily. Only in the final few hundred metres did he begin to lose out as riders, notably Dennis, took up the pace. Dennis took seconds out of the lead, but crucially Wiggins still held it and once the euphoria of the stage win for Dennis died down it was hard to see how Wiggins could be toppled.

Dennis, the closest of his rivals, and the others could attack the lead on stage 6 to Mountain High but if anything Wiggins was stronger at the end as he managed to gap the Garmin rider and add another couple of seconds to his advantage. With two stages left, both of which were likely to end in a bunch sprint Wiggins looked safe and indeed that proved to be the case. He won the Tour of California by less than a minute, but his margin of superiority was far greater than the time gap showed.

So, mission accomplished then. Naturally, post race questions wondered if the win would have implications for Wiggins’ plans come July. The question was inevitable, even if it was just viewed as a US interviewer aggrandising their race. The so called ‘fourth grand tour’. Wiggins answered with a straight bat; if he was going to do the Tour it would be in support of Froome. The significant part of his answer was the ‘if’. Let’s indulge in fantasy for a second and state that Wiggins looks like the rider who one the Tour in 2012 and based on that why not let him lead Sky in the Tour. From a marketing perspective this would make total sense as Wiggins is far more popular than Froome with the wider (non-cycling) audience. Only Wiggins has the reach that could push the World Cup off the back pages.

However, Team Sky management have a strategy that is centred on Froome and everything else has to take second place to that. If Froome stamps his feet and says he doesn’t want Wiggins at the Tour then Wiggins will not be selected. Shrewder heads, like erstwhile Sky insider Shane Sutton have already indictated that could be the case even though it would seem inexplicable to many. An understanding of the thinking behind a decision like this is required. Based on performances so far this year Wiggins is arguably the stronger rider of the two. But, but Sky made their choice last year. Both riders need careful handling, but Froome has the kind of single mindedness  that Wiggins can’t maintain, particularly in a team which, even if it was once, is no longer centred on him.

It will take a massive drop in form and or fitness by Froome for Sky to look again to Wiggins for the Tour as leader, even if he could be a favourite again. Everything that Sky have done so far indicates that they have bet the house on Froome to defend his title. Wiggins may yet be selected as a superdomestique for the Tour, but VCSE suspects that there will be a few more twists yet.

The Tour of California feels like there are races within the race as it always seems to manage to throw up an unusual result or two besides the GC battle and the sprint stages. This years edition was no different. In fact stages 4 and 5 provided two different outcomes that wouldn’t have been predicted ahead of the race. Stage 4 was a bit of a comedy of errors as the sprinters teams miscalculated the catch for the break and it was left to the third division US based teams to duke it out for the win. Taylor Phinney redeemed himself from the TT by soloing off the front on the final climb of stage 5 to take the win in Santa Barbara. Phinney’s only other stage win came in similar, if less relaxed, circumstances last year in Poland. He had the time to bow theatrically this time around and it’s no surprise that a win for a marquee US rider goes down very well at this race.

The leftovers were divided between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. Cavendish appearing at the race for the first time in Omega Pharma Quick Step colours bookended the race with a win in the first and then the final stages. Cannondale probably breathed a huge sigh of relief that Sagan was able to take at least one stage. As good as he is, in an out and out sprint with Cavendish it’s really no contest. Cavendish’s first win has been replayed more than normal following the release of video from the on bike camera of runner up John Degenkolb. The UCI have suggested that cameras could be allowed in some races and based on the footage below it should be adopted as quickly as possible, albeit on a similar delay to the radio clips used on F1 coverage.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – week one stages 4 through 9 

One word to sum up the Giro so far; attritional. After losing Dan Martin before the first (TTT) stage had even finished, Marcel Kittel was gone as well and we weren’t even in Italy yet. The first stage on Italian soil in the far south of the country and finishing in the port city of Bari good weather might have been expected. Instead with the race visiting the area for the first time in thirty years we had rain, the difference being that this was as unusual in Bari as it was common in Ireland. Cue a pretty much neutralised stage that was eventually taken by FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni after the Giant team, trying to win in the absence of team leader Kittel, suffered a mechanical.

With Kittel gone it’s almost worth Bouhanni staying on at the race as it’s hard to see who will offer much opposition in the sprints. Bouhanni, to use a football analogy is a Europa league rider with ambitions to join the Champions league with Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel. Now that the Giant rider has abandoned he’s facing the equivalent of the lower divisions, although it’s strange that Elia Viviani hasn’t challenged more.

That story is a bit part as far as week one of the Giro is concerned. The big story has been the decimation of the field; a combination of bad weather and accidents (caused by the bad weather) robbing the race of contenders and / or key support riders. Biggest victims of misfortune are Katusha who have lost Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampolo Caruso and Angel Vicioso. It emerged that Rodriguez had started the race with tow broken ribs, sustained during Ardennes week. Added to that a broken finger during stage 7 to Monte Cassino and J Rod was out. If that was bad news and the accident that caused Caruso to abandon looked worse during prolonged camera shots in the aftermath of the crash what happened to Vicioso is truly tragic. He has been forced to retire, not just from the race but from the sport after suffering a triple fracture of his femur on the same stage.

Orica’s Michael Matthews won the stage in the Maglia Rosa having held the lead since the race left Ireland the previous weekend. Matthews had fancied his chances the previous day, but had managed to avoid the carnage on stage 7 and get away with a select group for the climb to Cassino. The key beneficiary as far as the GC was concerned was Cadel Evans. There was some mutterings that Evans shouldn’t have pressed the advantage with so many riders effected by the crash, but wiser heads dismissed it as a racing incident. It wasn’t as if Matthews teammates weren’t impacted either; Orica lost two riders on the stage due to the crash.

Evans takes a lead of around a minute into week two. At this point in the race it’s probably not enough of a lead, particularly with the final weeks climbs to come. Evans at least has a strong rider in support inside the top 10 and this could pay dividends if the likes of Rigoberto Uran or, more likely, Nairo Quintana decides to attack. Quintana has the most time to make up, 1.45 back on Evans and if the places were reversed you would suspect that the Movistar rider would feel more comfortable defending that lead than the Australian who will suffer on the steeper climbs to come. Uran will probably fulfil a watching brief for now, although a similar attack to the one that brought his stage win in last years race could really shake up the GC. Like Evans, Uran has some strong domestiques who he can use to cover attacks if they come.

For home fans the top ten has three Italians who might well feature on the podium if not the top step. Of the three the one with the most to celebrate on todays rest day is Lampre’s Diego Ulissi who has already taken two stage wins. He’s a versatile rider and both of his wins have come from late surges in the last few hundred metres. He’s unlikely to be given the chance to attack for a breakaway win, but if he can hang with the best climbers in the next couple of weeks he might nick another win or two, even if the top prize is likely to elude him. Fabio Aru has inherited the Astana team leadership now that Michele Scarponi has lost time following the week one carnage. He’s least likely of the three in VCSE’s view. Which leaves AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. Tipped in the VCSE Giro preview, Pozzovivo looked strong is yesterdays stage and put time into Evans to move within a minute and a half of the lead. What he lacks however is a really strong set of domestiques to back him and this could be the difference between a podium finish or just a stage win or two this year. Like Aru, Rafal Majka has ‘benefited’ from the demise of his team leader at Tinkoff Saxo Nico Roche. Majka currently sits third and could build on a strong performance in last years race.

The week ahead has a 42km TT and two mountain stages over the weekend. With another (uphill) TT and three more mountain stages to come it’s unlikely that this week will see the final selection as far as GC is concerned but any pretenders will be eliminated by the time the race reaches Montecampione on Sunday afternoon.

Wet, Wet, Wet – VCSE’s Racing Digest #30

Giro 2014  Stages 2 & 3 Belfast to Belfast & Armagh to Dublin

With crowds lining the route in what has been pretty much awful weather it’s fair to say that bringing the 2014 Giro d’Italia to Ireland has been a huge success. The residents of Belfast and Dublin and towns and villages elsewhere on the route were always going to get into the spirit of the event and it will be interesting to see if there’s quite as much yellow being worn as Pink when the Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire in a month or two. There was a real sense that for three days at least the Giro belonged to Ireland rather than Italy and the weather couldn’t dampen those feelings.

Whether the teams enjoyed the three stages quite as much is probably more open to debate. The stages didn’t throw up many stories and in many ways (as flat stages often are) were less than exciting. The spectators found much more to enjoy than the actual participants. The opening TTT had some human interest with Dan Martin’s cruel exit, the suspected broken collarbone now confirmed and Svein Tuft getting handed a leaders jersey for his birthday. Taking in some the most beautiful coastline in the UK along the Antrim coast it was unfortunate that the weather just made it appear so grim. The view might have given some respite had the weather been better as the racing itself was pretty flat. The peloton was content to put in the miles in return for a fresh (or in this case dry) jacket from the team car.

Marcel Kittel’s presence meant that the sprint, at least in stage two, was a forgone conclusion and the Giant rider manage to survive even the disintegration of his lead out train to win easily as the race returned to Belfast. Ninety five percent of today’s stage from Armagh to Dublin was the same sleep inducing procession as the previous day, interspersed with accidents as riders nodded off through boredom. There was much speculation about a tricky S bend on the run into the line in Dublin, but as the race approached the roads had begun to dry out in the strong winds and it was negotiated with little fuss.

The peloton had already been funnelled onto a narrower section of a couple of kilometres earlier and by the time they went through 1k to go were very strung out. Kittel on his own at this point was some way back from Sky’s Ben Swift and Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. Swift, who had recovered his place at the head of the race was led out by Edvalt Boasson Hagen and right up to the line you would have thought he had won it. But in a superhuman effort it was Kittel who nicked the win by no more that a wheel. The big German collapsed afterwards demonstrating just how much he had put into the effort to overhaul Swift who finished a disappointed but worthy second.

The teams now go into a rest day as the Giro transfers down to southern Italy. Assuming Michele Scarponi is injured from his accident today, the race could have shrunk its group contenders already with Martin already out. The teams and riders will be hoping that no one has picked up a bug from three days of riding in almost continuous rain. There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from the Irish stages. That Orica Green Edge are great TTT riders is hardly news any more than Marcel Kittel is the worlds fastest sprinter in the world right now. Of the world tour teams those with the least ambition look like Belkin and Lotto who have stuck riders in the breakaways on both days.

The peloton may not look back on the Irish stages of this years Giro with much fondness (almost entirely due to the weather) but for the fans at the roadside the memories will linger on and hopefully inspire a new generation of Kelly’s and Roche’s.

Tour of California 

The Tour of California gets underway later tonight (UK time) with a stage starting and finishing in the state capital of Sacremento. The big story from the race is Sky’s entry. It’s a mixture of marketing for team and rider with Sky now sponsored by another News Corp company 21st Century Fox and Bradley Wiggins, who is now represented by agent to the stars Simon Fuller. The logic of the teams appearance in a marketplace so important for one of their title sponsors make sense, what isn’t so clear is whether or not Wiggins is the kind of character that American fans will take to their hearts. The possibility that Wiggins will make it big in the US is a question to be answered another day. Right now we have the rider’s stated aim of winning the GC over the course of eight stages that will follow the ToC’s traditional north to south trajectory after last years ‘experiment’ with a south to north parcours.

The north to south route has often seen the early stages run in the sort of weather that the 2014 Giro Peloton has ‘enjoyed’ in Ireland and this was part of the motivation for the switch to a southern start in the ToC last year. The law of unintended consequences as far as the route change was concerned was that the early stages saw riders suffering dehydration and heat stroke with some of the rouleurs who had spent the previous weeks in the wind and rain of northern France and Flanders collapsing in the intense heat of the Californian desert. North, south or south to north is of less concern to Wiggins than stage two’s TT around Folsom a town whose previous and let’s be honest greater claim to fame is for its prison immortalised in the Johnny Cash live recording. The TT is short at 20km, but this isn’t much more than the archetypal 10 miles distance used for most club TT’s and will be a distance that Wiggin’s should be comfortable with. The bigger question in terms of his GC ambitions will be whether or not he can eke out enough of an advantage (assuming he actually wins the stage) to be defended for the remainder of the race. Sky have selected a squad that draws heavily on its US riders and it does look a little light on riders who will set the kind of pace over the climbs that feature later in the race that will be essential for a Wiggins win.

The Sky / Wiggins appearance continues a trend seen before in the ToC which see’s riders integral to the marketing of bikes in the US making an appearance. Jens Voigt, a stage winner last year. is a case in point and continues his ‘farewell tour’ in the US. home of his bike sponsor Trek. The other marquee name worth mentioning is Peter Sagan. Sagan often has the sprints in the US as a bit of a benefit, but Omega Pharma Quick Step have bought Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen this year, so Sagan won’t have things quite his own way in 2014 VCSE suspects. Keep an eye out also for young British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart who’s racing in the US this year and is likely to feature in at least one of the breakaways.

Women’s Tour 

Winner of the Women's Tour - Marianne Vos
Winner of the Women’s Tour – Marianne Vos

 Some might say that the rise in popularity in cycling in the UK has been driven by the success of the aforementioned Sky and Wiggins. Actually the growth in popularity has been as much if not more so because the successes have crossed the gender barrier and riders like Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott are as popular as the mod knight of the realm. Announced last year by Tour of Britain organisers Sweetspot the maiden Women’s Tour has been run around the east of England this week and has attracted the cream of the women’s peloton including Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson.

It goes without saying that the chances of running an event for the first time, where the take up and interest from new fans will be so important to its ongoing success, needs good weather. Typically, as this is the UK it’s rained and when it hasn’t rained it’s been windy. The positive news is that this doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of the riders or, more importantly, the crowds who have turned out along the entire route to provide scenes that the women’s peloton aren’t always used to. Whether these same crowds will turn out again next year remains to be seen, but with a stage of the Tour coming through Cambridgeshire and Essex in July the locals are getting their fair share of professional road cycling this summer.

In trying to create a narrative to the race the organisers and media had attempted to talk up the race as face off between Vos and Armitstead. There was a grain of truth in this as Armitstead has enjoyed a successful start to the year with a win in the opening round of the women’s world cup, backed up by a series of podium places in the following rounds. With Vos only returning to the world cup at Fleche Wallone, Armitstead leads the world cup standings and from this the supposed rivalry with Vos emerged. The fantastically matter of fact Armitstead nipped this in the bud ahead of the first stage but the opening couple of stages did provide flashes of how much she has improved this year. Vos looked as if she was trying (and failing) to beat Armitstead in the intermediate sprints but the evidence of the final three stages would suggest she was just riding herself in.

After Johansson took the opening stage, we were treated to a breakaway win from Rossella Ratto in stage two, the peloton getting a bit huffy with one another over who should be putting in an effort to catch Ratto. From then on Vos took over taking the next three stages and the overall comfortably. No doubt the supposed Armitstead / Vos rivalry was swept under the carpet at the end of the race; Armitstead didn’t even start the final stage. There was good news for British riders with two of the next generation of women Hannah Barnes and Lucy Garner finishing in the top 10, less than a minute down on Vos in the final standings.

Whether or not the Women’s Tour is judged to be a success depends less on the crowds who turned out to what was a free event than the commercial success of the race. The title sponsor Friends Life was a late signatory and the some of the sponsors, familiar from the Tour or Britain, suggested that the organisers had been going around with the begging bowl to an extent. Getting a global brand like Strava involved was a bit a coup though. Is it the right thing to hold the Women’s Tour as a race in its own right as opposed to piggy backing the women’s event on to the Tour of Britain. This seems to work successfully at the Tour of Flanders and Fleche Wallone and there are some women in the peloton who want to race on a level playing field with the men. That the race exists is a good thing, but like the Tour of Britain itself has grown from its latest incarnation of ten years ago, The Women’s Tour needs to evolve.

Giro 2014 – The Agony and the Ecstasy

Stage 1 – Belfast to Belfast TTT

 If you had the choice to ride for a team in the pro peloton who would it be? The obvious cliché for a Brit would be the dark clad horde Team Sky arriving at each race behind the zero visibility tinted windows of the Death Star. Any why not? For your correspondent however the teams that hold the greatest appeal in this hypothesis aren’t necessarily the  ones representing a home country or even the most winningest. It’s actually the teams that seem to genuinely embody that word ‘team’. The ones that represent the ‘one for all and all for one’ attitude. The outfit that exhibits this characteristic most of all is Orica Green Edge who seem to manage to win while looking as if they’re actually having fun.

Out of the Giro - Dan Martin
Out of the Giro – Dan Martin

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, Orica announced that they wanted to do things a bit differently when the released their lip synced version of ‘Call Me Maybe’ at the end of the 2012 Vuelta. In a predominantly Australian team the ‘mateship’ between the riders and staff is clear, but it isn’t just limited to the Aussie riders on the team as shown in yesterdays TTT that opened the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Svein Tuft, one of three non Australian’s in Orica’s Giro line up, was (literally) gifted the Maglia Rosa on his 37th birthday by the team. In the absence of Omega Pharma Quick Step’s TTT A team (that only tends to appear at the world’s) Orica are one of, if not, the best TTT outfits out there and would have fancied themselves as contenders if not outright favourites to take the first stage around 23km of Belfast city centre. As the second team off the start ramp Orica would have a long wait to see if their time was going to be the best, but whatever the outcome Tuft was going to get his present as the team shuffled to ensure that he would be the first over the line. If Orica did end up with the quickest time Tuft would be in pink for his big day.

In a possible glimpse of what we can expect for July’s Tour Grand Depart in Yorkshire the opening stage of this years Giro threw up the kind of weather that is synonymous with Britain; rain. OK, so it wasn’t exactly torrential but it looked as if someone at the city council had misunderstood what the race organisers mean when they ask for the road surface to be tidied up for a cycle race. Every bit of the course looked as if it had been given a fresh coat of paint with the riders having to negotiate bright white road stripes and bus lane signage throughout.

It wasn’t a bit of paint that did for Dan Martin. The Garmin rider’s high profile status thanks to his registration with the Irish cycling federation and team leader status for the race appears to have cursed him. As he rode up the chain gang in fifth wheel Martin appeared to be unsettled by a raised manhole cover and as he hit a second almost immediately after he was down. The three riders behind were skittled over by his stricken Cervelo and Martin was left in the wake of the accident clutching his shoulder. It soon became clear that Martin wasn’t going anywhere but the local A&E, his Giro over before he had even ridden the first stage.

Martin’s exit made Joaquim Rodriguez’s time loss look insignificant in comparison, Katusha the next biggest losers out of the GC contenders. Giant underperformed to the extent that Marcel Kittel is unlikely to get a spell in the leaders jersey in Ireland at least. With heavy rain and thunderstorms forecast for today’s stage around the Antrim coast and back to Belfast it’s entirely possible that we could lose a few more riders thanks to typical early grand tour jitters and wet and crowded roads.

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.

GeneralPlanGiro2014
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.