I’ll get me coat! – VCSE reviews the Ronde 

Tour of Flanders 2017

Beware the errant spectator, the misplaced guard rail or even the poorly secured advertising banner. There are many things that can derail your chances of success in the classics and it was an apparent combination of those three things that ended Peter Sagan’s hopes of doubling up on his Ronde victory from last year. Like the mysterious injuries caused by red hot disc brakes perhaps we will never know what exactly precipitated Sagan’s fall on the  Oude Kwaremont but whatever it was provided enough for Philippe Gilbert to stay away and claim one of the monumental classic races that he has always maintained he was capable of winning.

Philippe Gilbert

Riding in the Belgian champions colours Gilbert had gone on the attack with more than 50 kilometres of racing to go and still facing some of the hardest climbs. In the races I’ve seen him in this year he’s looked like a rider who wants to race for every sign even if the result was unlikely to go his way. A gambler then? Perhaps, but maybe also a rider with a point to prove. Tom Boonen, racing his final Flanders, is targeting Paris Roubaix as his swan song but he’s a perennial favourite at 36 years old. So Gilbert at two years Boonen’s junior; why not? Well saying you can win it is one thing, actually doing it is something else entirely.

Gilbert has clearly been rejuvenated by his move to Quick Step after four years at BMC. It’s always seemed to me that the last thing you want to do as a professional rider who’s winning races regularly is to move to BMC. Gilbert moved there after a stellar 2011 season that saw him take all three of the Ardennes classics as well as an early season win in Strade Blanche. He might have spent a year in the rainbow stripes but another Amstel Gold in 2014 aside it looked like Gilbert was a relatively under productive on a big salary. If this does him a disservice even the rider himself questioned whether the team really knew how to get the best from him, even going so far as suggesting that he would sacrifice his form in the Ardennes for a crack at the cobbles. BMC didn’t appreciate that suggestion at the time and we’re happy to put the house on Van Avermaet by not extending Gilbert’s contract at the end of 2016. That isn’t to say that BMC were wrong to do so; Van Avermaet has won Het Nieuswblad, E3 and Gent Wevelgem this year and Gilbert has rolled the dice in so many races that his number was always going to come up at some point.

Compare and contrast two teams and Gilbert’s start to 2017. His form in the run up to today’s race should arguably have made him the favourite. Second in E3 and Dwars door Vlaandaren, stage win and GC in the 3 days of De Panne. But no, all the talk, the pre-race hyperbole was Sagan, Van Avermaet and to a lesser extent Boonen. Going long might not have seemed like a recipe for success either, at the point of Gilbert’s attack Sagan and Van Avermaet were both  very much a factor.

It’s often a risk with the biggest sporting events that the decision to ‘go live’ and ‘bring us all the action’ results in very little ‘action’ taking place. Returning from an early season cycling holiday in Spain I restored the power to our Sky Plus box this morning and found that live coverage would start at 9.30 this morning! Unfortunately for me this didn’t make for enjoyable viewing as the British Eurosport feed persists with Carlton Kirby as their lead commentator. Now I know watching cycling is a bit niche out there in the real world so taking issue with who calls the race might be seen as navel gazing in the extreme. Trouble is Carlton is really beginning to grate on me. Days were that David Harmon was Eurosport’s go to cycling guy but he left early in 2013 and since then the big stuff has been Carlton’s gig. He still manages to have his moments and his commentary on Iljo Keisse’s win in the 2012 Tour of Turkey is well worth a search on my YouTube page but most of the time I just wish I could mute him. Funny thing is the commentator who I think does it get right seems to polarise opinion almost as much as Carlton. Rob Hatch did call the race on the world feed (whatever that is) today and I think he generally gets the tone of things right. When the race was failing to ignite early on today Hatch would have lead a discussion about the contenders that wouldn’t have felt like he was calling out names from the start list. He also seems to get the best out of Eurosport’s lead colourman, the legend that is Sean Kelly. Anticipating a barrage of banality from Kirby, Sean can be equally anodyne in his contributions although he got engaged of his own accord today after Gilbert attacked. Rob Hatch manages to ask Kelly a question that actually makes him think and draws out some interesting insights as a result. Pairing Kelly with Kirby does Sean at bit of a disservice I think. Of the other commentators out there I think Ned Boulting will emerge as a bit of a doyenne after a shaky start. David Millar alongside him is very good too as someone with with recent knowledge of life in the peloton as well as no apparent desire to become a ‘character’. Matt Stephens is good in either role and Brian Smith provides a sterling service shooting down Kirby’s flights of fancy when required. Magnus Backstedt doesn’t appear as often as he used to but when he does you have to hope he’s alongside Rob Hatch as Kirby seems to melt any intelligent thought he might have. I’ll have to give some credit to Carlton as he was prepared to call it for Gilbert sooner than anyone else might have dared to, but he does love a trier.

Any commentator would have struggled to find much to get excited about early on though. Race organisers Flanders Classics had made a number of changes to the route this year with the start moving from Bruges to Antwerp. For this monument tradition can always be bought and the suggestion is that Antwerp paid a six figure sum to host the race. Well at least they didn’t have to buy the crowds that turned out in the sunshine. Money apparently changed hands again to get the Muur-Kapelmuur reinstated into the race route after several years absence. No complaints about that and money well spent as it was the back drop for the key selection of the race with Gilbert and Boonen going clear with teammate Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s  Luke Rowe in the group. Vanmarcke’s bad luck in the monuments continued and he even managed to bundle Rowe up in his misfortune when the Sky rider couldn’t avoid the falling Cannondale team leader. Vanmarcke got back on a bike eventually but he the crash ended his chances and it looks like a breakthrough win is as far away as ever. Rowe hadn’t look that strong either and with Ian Stannard relatively anonymous so far this year Sky have had a poor return on the cobbles in 2017.

While Sagan’s coming together with an anorak might have sealed things for Gilbert,  Van Avermaet had a good go at reeling him in. He might have done too, but was probably undone by running out of kms to track down the leader coupled with the completely supine response from the other riders in his group. As I said earlier I think there was an element of luck that played its part in Gilbert’s victory but the unpredictable factor was leavened out by the riders self belief that he could bring off a result in this race to the extent of launching a solo attack so far out that most wouldn’t have expected to survive. Gilbert’s decision, post Flanders to pull out of Paris Roubaix suggests that he would have been prepared to gamble again if he hadn’t have pulled off the win in the Ronde.

Pais Vasco 2017

A few riders that might have featured in Flanders lined up in the Basque Country on Monday. With Sky’s poor showing on the cobbles might they have benefited from the presence of the Gilbertesque Michal Kwiatowski?

I much prefer the early season week long stages races and I look forward to Itzulia primarily to see hard racing in horrible weather and on that score this year’s edition has so far disappointed. We’ve just returned from a week on the bikes in Spain and enjoyed weather that by U.K. standards was positively balmy. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of rtthe week’s action but hoping that the rain clouds start gathering otherwise the race might end up looking like an Argos Volta a Catalonia.

How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

It’s the start of a new season; time to rekindle the romance? 

I’m writing my first post of 2017 (and my first since last year’s Tour) on the first day of the Dubai Tour. Dubai marks the return of live television coverage and despite its relatively short history it’s the probably the strongest after the demise of Qatar and the indifference that is shown towards the (more varied) Tour of Oman. Dubai benefits from slick presentation by organisers RCS with coverage that lasts long enough for the commentators to sift through the off-season stories before the inevitable sprint finish.

The fact that Dubai has survived is likely to have been helped by each stage being shown live on Eurosport. Qatar and Oman had both been around longer but the former wasn’t shown outside of ‘local’ host channels and Oman’s highlights only package has steadily eroded to the point that it’s buried one or even two days later around midnight. As an armchair fan (who rides a bit too) having Eurosport is pretty much essential if you want to watch road racing on television. With the possible exception of the GP Samyn I can’t think of many races that don’t benefit from getting shown in high definition (OK maybe I don’t need to see the delights of the petrol station at the finish of Liege Bastogne Liege either). ITV continue the C4 legacy with much the same team and cover the Tour live (and in recent years the Dauphine) but other than the Tour of Britain and a highlights package of the Vuelta that’s it. Eurosport gives you the spring classics, the Giro, Tour, Vuelta and pretty much everything in between.

The reason I’m banging on about this is that it slipped out via my social media feed last week that Sky (that’s Sky as in Team Sky, home of 3 x Tour winner Chris Froome fame) are threatening to drop Eurosport from their channels as of 1st Feb*. So potentially I’m looking at my 200+ days of live cycling becoming.. er.. well 1 day actually. Now it’s possible that everything has been resolved today and I’ll tune in tomorrow and find stage 2 of the Dubai Tour there in all of its glory. In all of the hoo hah about Donald Trump, Brexit and transfer deadline day a resolution that will see Sky continuing to show live cycling might have got lost in the ether. I have often wondered if Sky would see the success of their eponymous cycling team as a vehicle for taking over coverage of at least some of the marquee races. It seems a bit odd that they seem prepared to lose all of the free marketing that having Eurosport on their platform provides. Of course Sky have announced that their sponsorship of.. er Team Sky will not continue in perpetuity and their role as principal sponsor of British Cycling ended last year. Maybe, despite the success the team have achieved, Sky are falling out of love with cycling?

Pure speculation of course (isn’t that the preserve of the armchair fan?), but wouldn’t Sky be forgiven for feeling a little bit disenchanted with cycling after last year? Almost a seven year itch perhaps. There was quite a lot of things not to love about the sport last year and pretty much all of it originated from Sky and British Cycling. I’ve lost count of the times I thought ‘Wow, what a story. I ought to post something about that’ only for the next bit of news to emerge and the original story seems minor in comparison.

2016 Annus Horribilus 

The wheels started to come off just before the start of the Rio Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead had swept all before her in 2015, culminating in a rainbow jersey by winning the Worlds in Richmond. Her form had continued into 2016 and she was widely tipped as potential Gold Medal winner in the Olympic road race. Just before the team were due to depart for Brazil it emerged that Armitstead had missed three whereabouts tests. Ordinarily this would have resulted in an automatic suspension from competition, leaving aside the inevitable questions about why any athlete would miss three tests. However British Cycling accepted Armitstead’s justification for missing three tests in less than 12 months and she would be allowed to compete in Rio.

Naturally this provoked a pretty negative reaction from press, public and many of her fellow professionals. Women’s cycling has been painted as somehow immune from the potential use of PEDs, principally because it is even less secure than the men’s tour financially. What would be the point of doping it was suggested when so many teams struggle just to make the start line. No doubt aware of the need to protect the sports reputation against comparisons with the worst excesses of the men some of Armitstead’s rivals, notably her predecessor as world champion Pauline Ferrand Perrot, were incredulous that she had even missed one test. The UK media wasted no time in seeking the views of the senior British male Olympic cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins. He couldn’t understand how Armitstead had made such a foolish error either. No guilt was implied but Wiggins stressed how important it was to be ‘squeaky clean’ in all matters doping related. He might have cause to regret this himself later.

Continue reading How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

Kan anyone katch Kristoff?

Tour of Flanders 2015

This year’s classics season is being turned on its head by a couple of unlikely teams; Sky and Katusha. Alexander Kristoff added another win for Katusha and his second monument victory today by winning the Ronde. Kristoff’s relatively straightforward success adds to Luca Paolini’s win in Gent Wevelgem last week and his own second place in Milan San Remo to place Katusha top of the teams in this year’s spring classics.

Alexander Kristoff winner Tour des Fjords 2 stage
Alexander Kristoff

After winning Milan San Remo the previous year Kristoff was naturally going to be one of the favourites for that race again this year but he hasn’t been seen as a rider who would figure as highly in the cobbled classics. He had been near the sharp end of the peloton in E3 and Gent Wevelgem but his three stage wins and taking the GC in this weeks 3 Days of De Panne made him a red hot tip for the Ronde. Kristoff was beginning to show his sprinting chops last year and he ran Marcel Kittel really close for the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee for the final stage of the Tour. He has is mining a rich vein of form at the moment that just makes the likelihood of him winning a bunch sprint seem like a foregone conclusion. Three stage wins on the relatively benign De Panne parcours didn’t necessarily mean that victory in the Ronde would be easy to come by. Kristoff appeared to realise this; attacking ahead of the final ascents of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg and building a small but ultimately decisive gap to the chasing group.

It could and indeed has been argued that this years spring races are wide open as they lack two principal characters; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen is rapidly running out of time to add to his Flanders and Roubaix totals and like 2013 he’s out of this years races through injury. Unlike 2013 Boonen didn’t even get as far as the early races after his tumble at the back of the pack early on in Paris Nice. Cancellara joined his great rival on the sick list after crashing out of E3 and the rest of the classics season when it was revealed he had fractured vertebrae. Boonen had shown the briefest indicators of form winning Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and animating sections of Roubaix last year but Cancellara has been the rider during the same period winning Flanders twice, Roubaix and E3 along with strong finishes in MSR. A master of hiding his form until it matters the only indication we had of Cancellara’s 2015 form was a high finish behind Kristoff in this years MSR. I can’t help feeling that a fit Fabs would have been a factor today if only because so many of the peloton look to him to decide how they’re going to run their own race.

In E3 the beneficiary of Cancellara’s absence was Sky’s Geraint Thomas. His win in the semi classic has made this Sky’s best classics showing to date and the Welshman was rightly considered a favourite today. It’s a measure of how results have increased the teams confidence that Sky tried to control a lot of the race today. Perhaps unfairly a lot of the mainstream reporting in the UK has centred on Bradley Wiggins who will attempt to win Paris Roubaix next weekend. Wiggins had been in good form on the road and off it in the run up to today with an emphatic victory in the TT stage at De Panne and in interviews where he cited his desire to help Thomas to victory in the Ronde. I’m absolutely certain that this was the Sky strategy with Wiggins planned as the rider to break up the bunch to set up a Thomas win. Unfortunately for Wiggins he slid off early in proceedings and spent the rest of the race at the wrong end of the pack. It will be interesting to see how the events of today impact next weekend. At one point it looked like Wiggins was going to be escorted back to the front by Bernie Eisel who had shepherded him at De Panne but this didn’t come to much. Was Wiggins physically unable to contribute or had he mentally checked out of the race at that point? He was still appearing in shot at the back of the peloton late into the race and it’s true that he needed a race at this distance to prepare for Roubaix. If Wiggins did decide that he wasn’t going to contribute today (for whatever reason) it could have implications for how much support he can expect next week. Sky went from having riders in support of Thomas at the front to suddenly having just Luke Rowe (who has been a super domestique in the classics this year). If Wiggins had stayed on the bike it’s possible that Thomas could have had something in reserve for the final k’s, maybe Wiggins would have been part of a three man break with Kristoff and Niki Terpstra. Let’s just take things at face value for a moment and say that Wiggins just came off and that was his day done. If there’s nothing more to it than that it does show how so much of one day racing is down to luck. Wiggins will need more of that commodity if he’s going to go out on a high in Roubaix’s velodrome next weekend.

Niki Terpstra has been Etixx Quick Step’s mister consistency with a podium place today to go with last weeks in Gent Wevelgem. For Etixx though this has been a pretty forgettable classics campaign. Zdenek Stybar’s win in Strade Bianche and Cavendish taking KBK are the only bright spots where the majority of discussion has been around how the team have failed to capitalise on having numbers in the final selection. Terpstra will defend his Paris Roubaix title next weekend and it will be a last throw of the dice for Etixx before the team turns its attention to the grand tours.

Terpstra probably should have gone long today if he wanted to beat Kristoff but my sense is that he went with him to attempt to cover for Stybar. Kristoff’s victory, like that of John Degenkolb in MSR, marks him as more than just a sprinter. With Thor Hushovd’s retirement last year (a party that Kristoff spoilt by snatching the win in Thor’s final race) he was always going to be the heir apparent for Hushovd’s ‘hammer’. In winning today Kristoff has demonstrated that he can emulate Hushovd further by being a factor in one day races and on the right course possibly another Scandinavian wearer of the rainbow stripes.