Swiss roll over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #27

Tour of Flanders 2014

“I’ve got this.. I’ve got this..” or words to that effect was Sep Vanmarcke’s message to his team car as he approached the finish line after 250 kilometres of racing at the Ronde. “No I haven’t” is what he should have said after he crossed the line in third place to Fabian Cancellara (OK, let’s be honest it was probably some Franco / Belge expletives).

Can I win Roubaix too? - Fabian Cancellara
Can I win Roubaix too? – Fabian Cancellara

Vanmarcke wasn’t the only one kicking himself. BMC’s Greg van Avermaet had gone away late on and it felt like he could go one better than his Het Nieuwsblad 2nd place from earlier in the year. This years Ronde came down to a sprint of the track variety (missing only track stands) and it was 2013 winner Cancellara who out foxed his rivals. A week away from Paris Roubaix his rivals must be wondering what they can do to deny Cancellara another win in next weeks race. Whether or not you think Spartacus possesses a sprint, the fact is Vanmarcke and van Avermaet (in particular) are decent quick men. Stijn Vandenbergh, an analogue rider against digital rivals recognised that in a four way sprint he would be favourite for fourth place and attacked first. Indicative of his place as Tom Boonen’s bag carrier, Vandenbergh gave up almost as soon as he started, sacrificing a lead that looked as if it could stick, as a lack confidence manifested itself immediately. Vandenbergh’s bid to escape might have lacked conviction but it looked most likely to succeed. Instead as the final few hundred metres disappeared beneath their wheels it was Cancellara who got the drop on the other three. Unlike last year, this wasn’t a victory to savour in the final kilometre’s Cancellara had to work for this one and the emotions weren’t released until he crossed the line and began punching the air.

Vanmarcke and van Avermaet rolled over in second and third and in disbelief; “what just happened”. The result is potential hex on both riders, experiencing another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. The positives are that both riders (and in fairness Vandenbergh too) have been consistent performers in the classics so far this year, but the fact is that this was a race both men could have won. It cannot be disputed either that Cancellara is the srongest rider in the classics right now and in the monuments when it really counts. It’s hard to see who’s going to beat him this year and Trek must feel vindicated in pulling out all of the stops to deny Sky taking him on last year when Radioshack finished as headline sponsor.

Having the numbers when the selection had taken place was no advantage for Omega Pharma Quick Step. The problem for QPQS was tactical. By the time it was clear that Tom Boonen was coming up short again, they lacked a rider who could take up the challenge of beating Cancellara. Boonen’s heavyweight shadow Vandenbergh had been sent up the road to cover van Avermaet’s late break, but as is so often the case he lacks the speed and guile to carve out a win for himself. Boonen, chasing a fourth Ronde victory may have believed until the last and that might be why the in form Niki Terpstra was released too late to catch the leading four.

Boonen wasn’t the only pre-race favourite who popped. Peter Sagan looked like he wished that the race distance had been about 50km less and was unable to go with Cancellara when the Trek team leader attacked. Given the choice Sagan would swap his E3 victory and the win that almost wasn’t in stage 1 of the Three Days of De Panne for a win in the Ronde. At 24 he can potentially be a classics contender for another ten years, but it seems that Sagan is subdued by the pressure to deliver a monument win. At least he will have a week to recover ahead of Paris Roubaix; the De Panne stage win looks extremely poor value if it was this that left Sagan without legs today.

This years edition was a bit of a crashfest with accidents ranging from the typical for a cobbled classic to the bizarre, such as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych getting unseated by a female spectator’s handbag. His teammate Stijn Devolder who had proved so valuable to Cancellara at E3 seemed to only feature on camera immediately after another mishap in an accident prone afternoon for the Belgian champion.

And so to your VCSE predictions. We tipped Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the our last post (http://tinyurl.com/pvkebup) and predicted that OPQS would be the strongest team. Geraint Thomas was an unlikely podium for Sky, but he was their best finisher in 8th place. Can we keep it up for Paris Roubaix next week? If you want to find out, follow the blog! Here’s a thought though; late entry to the Ronde Bradley Wiggins finished in 32nd place. Can he go better in the ‘hell of the north’ next Sunday?

Your world cup leader is..

Great to see Lizzie Armitstead leading the points table in the women’s World Cup. She finished second to Bols Dolmans teammate Ellen van Djik in the women’s Tour or Flanders today after winning the opening round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It’s been a great week for Lizzie as she signed a contract extension to 2016 with her Boels Dolmans team.

Tour of the Basque Country

Starts tomorrow! Last year’s edition was one of the highlights of the 2013 season with biblical rain and some outstanding rides from eventual winner Nairo Quintana and KOM Caja Rural’s Amets Txurruka. Quintana is missing this year; Movistar will be led by Alejandro Valverde. Ag2R have a potential double team in Jean-Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur to match up against previous grand tour winners Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal and Alberto Contador. There’s a strong Basque presence including (interestingly) Sky led by in form Mikel Nieve in the absence of Froome or Porte in what’s often seen as an important tune up for the Giro. With Quintana absent too, we shouldn’t read too much into this, but the race could be an opportunity for one of Sky’s new GC orientated signings (Phil Deignan is racing too) to raise themselves up the pecking order on the death star.

No Sky.. No comment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #24

Paris Nice wrap up

If you’re one of the occasional readers of this blog you might be forgiven for thinking VCSE is a bit of a Team Sky fanboy. Certainly the team behind the Death Star crop up pretty often in these pages but that’s as much to do with the teams poor showing in one day races rather than the way they impose (or attempt to) themselves on stage races. Since the teams ‘difficult’ birth in 2010 where results didn’t match the hype and expectations Sky have proved to be a flagship example of the thoroughness that has made British Cycling and British cycling so successful. Winners of the last two Tour de France the team have also treated some of ASO’s other headline races as a Sky benefit in the last three years. Sky have delivered the last three winners of Paris Nice, previously seen as a warm up for the classics, but from Sky’s point of view an opportunity to drill their high tempo superdomestiques for the grand tours.

Big win for Colombia  & French cycling - Carlos Betancur
Big win for Colombia & French cycling – Carlos Betancur

The last week has seen a reversal of fortune for Sky. Not yet of terminal proportions, but a reminder of the unpredictable nature of road racing and the teams inability to go to a ‘plan B’ when their strategy unravels. Richie Porte, last years Paris Nice winner, was moved into Sky’s Tirreno Adriatico line up at short notice after Chris Froome was injured. This went down like a lead balloon with the ASO and things weren’t helped by Sky’s tacit disapproval of the parcours for this years edition that did away with the final day’s TT up the Col d’Eze and featured no summit finishes. ASO shouldn’t be criticised for changing the format; most people who have seen the race this week have said they have found it more exciting. The normally monosyllabic Sean Kelly, a seven time winner of the race and known as ‘Monsieur Paris Nice’ was probably at his most animated during commentary alongside Rob Hatch. We were treated to a weeks racing where the final outcome for GC could have been decided in the last few kilometres of the race. So, ultimately the race was won by a climber, but this was a racer’s race with the contenders at the sharp end at the death each day.

Sky elevated Geraint Thomas to team leader in Porte’s absence and the Welshman did take the overall at one point during the race, only to fall out of contention after a nasty crash on the penultimate stage. By then AG2R’s Carlos Betancur had taken the yellow jersey following back to back stage wins during the week. Betancur was well looked after by a team that aren’t that familiar with trying to control a race, but it was good to see a race being controlled using old school methods like covering attacks, rather than relentless drilling on the front that seems to have become the norm with Sky. A bit of an aside here; Movistar have taken to riding on the front this year too and AG2R should be grateful for that as the Spanish team kept the breakaway riders very honest today for the final stage.

Just as it’s too early to write Sky off, it’s far too soon to talk about the curse of the rainbow jersey. World champion Rui Costa had a couple of close finishes at Paris Nice, but the disappointment of missing out on those wins was probably less painful than the crash he got caught up in on today’s final stage. He looks like a great signing for Lampre and bike sponsor Merida are making the most of him too in their new TV advert.

Assuming Thomas is still being viewed as a classics specialist then his performance in Paris Nice, at least until his crash, was pretty decent. He still doesn’t look like someone who’s about to win a big one day race, let alone a stage race but taking the lead in Paris Nice is another step forward from holding the lead for a few days in the 2013 Tour Down Under.

Betancur ends the week as the leading rider on the world tour. The ‘big’ names; Froome, Nibali etc. are nowhere to be seen at the moment, but Froome rides in the Volta a Catalunya in a weeks time and it’s hard to imagine that the table will look like this by the end of July. Despite this, Betancur’s result is a big one for him and Colombian cycling, perhaps elevating him in front of Rigoberto Uran if not Nairo Quintana for now.

It’s also a massive result for French cycling; today’s win for AG2R was the first for a French team in Paris Nice since the 1980’s. If it’s also a sign that cycling is becoming ‘cleaner’ if a French team can win Paris Nice it’s no bad thing, but for now the real winners are ASO for showing how interest can be maintained in a race if you dispense with endless summit finishes.

Tirreno Adriatico – the story so far

If the parcours for Tirreno Adriatico suited Richie Porte more than that on offer at Paris Nice we will never know as he pulled out of the event after Saturday’s stage. Porte never really looked like he was in contention this week and if he really was suffering from a virus it might explain his feeble digs on the climbs this week.

The early part of the race belonged to Omega Pharma. With Tony Martin and Mark Cavendish in the line up, the world TTT champions took the leaders jersey after stage one with Cavendish eventually surrendering it to teammate Michael Kwiatowski. The Pole is in great form after a win at Strade Bianche and considering the mix in the OPQS squad between GC specialists like Kwiatowski and Uran and Cavendish’s lead out train the team did well to keep the lead for so long. Uran seems out of sorts at the moment, perhaps unsettled by the more established Kwiatowski’s performances so far this year.

Kwiatowski finally faltered on Sunday’s stage losing the lead to Tinkoff Saxo’s Alberto Contador who has looked stronger as the week has gone on. Contador looked like he was back to his best, teeing up his stage win and stealing the lead from Kwiatowski with an economical ride in Saturday’s stage. Ably supported by Roman Kreuziger, who also looked super strong yesterday the two teammates saw off rivals and got within a minute of Kwiatowski ahead of today’s (Sunday) stage. It’s hard to see Contador giving up the GC now with a flat stage tomorrow ahead of the final TT.

An in form Contador is good news for those of us that don’t want the grand tours to be just about when Chris Froome will take the lead this year. Let’s just say this once more; it is far too soon to write Sky off, but for those that want some drama at the head of a stage race a resurgent Alberto Contador and the continued emergence of good Colombian riders is a very good thing indeed.

Revolution series round 5 – London Velodrome

VCSE was lucky enough to attend one of the sessions at the Revolution series final round this weekend. This was the first competition to be held in the Velodrome since the Olympics and there’s was a pretty much a full house, even at the afternoon session we joined.

Revolution
Revolution

First, a bit of a confession. Track cycling doesn’t really do it for your correspondent. That’s not to say all of it, but some of the events and not necessarily the obvious ones, are a bit of a yawn. For example, where’s the excitement in watching a three lap track stand contest? That said, even up in the gods it was as interesting to watch the riders prepare and then wind down between events. Seeing Laura Trott calmly walk over and pick up a flip top bin before vomiting into it after her pursuit round is a visceral insight into what it takes to win. A semi-serious debate between track commentator Hugh Porter and the crowd (via Twitter) about why velodrome tracks always turn left mentioned the connection with the Roman chariot races. There is something gladiatorial about the track and some riders know how to involve the crowd and then exploit that to their advantage. World champion Francois Pervis was able to get the kind of reaction that belied the fact that here was a Frenchman beating a British Olympic champion in his own backyard.

Pervis was putting the hurt on Trott’s other half, Jason Kenny. You imagine that Trott is properly supportive of her boyfriend no matter how he performs, but it maybe another psychological hurdle to overcome if you’re partner is winning for fun and you’re struggling to make the final. Trott it seems is not fazed by anything, even being physically sick in front of thousands of fans and the going to sign autographs for an hour. Before the incident with the bin, Trott was able to remove her aero helmet and do a victory lap that gave no indication of what was to come.

The Olympic legacy seems alive and well with the turnout for the Revolution. The biggest cheers were always going to go for the riders that the crowd had heard of; there was surprise and a little dismay when Dani King was beaten by Katie Archibald in the pursuit. Hugh Porter whipped things up as much as a man in his seventies could do when the crowd went a little flat and eventually the men’s points race had the crowd hooked when each sprint came around.

Trott ended the event with a fantastic score of six points in the omnium, the lowest possible score being six points for six victories. There’s obviously strength in depth in British track cycling but Trott looks like someone who can become truly dominant. We’re left with a hankering to stand in the centre of the track at the Ghent six day; as exciting as the racing was from the stands with a diet coke, watching amongst the crowd with a beer sounds like the way to go!

Revolution @ London Velodrome
Revolution @ London Velodrome

500 channels and there’s nothing on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #21

It’s the beginning of the road racing season with the traditional (at least of recent years) season openers; the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the Tour de San Luis. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that VCSE was tuning into the Tour of Lombardy the last race of note each year. ‘The race of the falling leaves’ might be more accurately nick named ‘The race of the falling rain’. If 2013 was anything to go by it didn’t seem that a race could be held in Italy without an accompaniment of torrential rain. The UCI’s choice to stage the early world tour races in far from the european winter has less to do with a search for warm weather as a money making opportunity; witness the introduction of a stage race for Dubai this year. The ‘desert’ races in Qatar and Oman are worth a watch for the chance to see which sprint train is functioning the best and an early indicator of GC form respectively.

Simon Gerrans - TDU GC winner
Simon Gerrans – TDU GC winner

Before the peloton gets sand blown however they must journey south for the world tours solitary visits to the South American and Australian continents. Both races feature a mixture of stages with options for breakaway or sprint finishes. We say all this with the proviso that we haven’t actually watched any footage from either event! If you’re a cycling fan and want to watch races, either live or highlights, then it’s pretty much essential to have Eurosport. Whether that’s via some kind of TV or cable subscription or via the channels own web app Eurosport will have more coverage of more races than any other channel. Part of Eurosport’s charm is that they don’t just cover the races you expect like Paris Roubaix of the Tour. It’s often possible to tune in randomly and find that their live coverage of an obscure cat 2 race from some French back water. These are often the best races to watch if you yearn for a dominant team performance from FDJ or AG2R, who often appear to be there just to fill gaps in the peloton in the major races.

The TDU and San Luis aren’t covered by Eurosport so getting to see either race can involve some difficulties. Correction, getting to see the TDU is easy if you shell out further for Sky Sports. Sky seem to be taking a wait and see approach to snapping up the rights for the races that are currently covered by Eurosport. This might seem surprising considering their four year old and ongoing sponsorship of a world tour team, but for now at least, they have contented themselves with one or two races lower profile stage races shown live and highlights from the Giro. It may yet happen that Sky outbid ITV for their live rights to the Tour in 2015 and that may in turn have implications for those of us that rely on Eurosport. Sky don’t appear to be concerned at the likely loss of viewers if the Tour moves from its current terrestrial berth, no doubt reassured that they will recoup any investment via advertising revenues. It would be ironic if the one professional sport that doesn’t require a ticket to watch live would require an increasing level of subscription for the armchair fan.

So what are the options for the non Sky endowed to keep up with the action from down under? Ironically, the local broadcasters do offer a very good live web stream. The problem for the UK viewer is that accessing this directly from someone like SBS is blocked; this even applies to their YouTube highlights. Just as VCSE used to sit glued to teletext in the days before rolling 24 hour sports news, the (comparatively) low tech way to follow a race live is often via social media. Ironically Sky provide one of the best live feeds via their Twitter, if restricted to the races where they are competing. More of the world tour teams are starting to pick up on this idea of keeping the fans updated and it isn’t exclusive to the big outfits with smaller teams like Madison Genesis doing the same from the Tour series last year.

A constantly updated timeline from Sky works wonderfully when you can’t get closer to the action. It comes into it’s own when you’re actually at the side of the road during a race too, helping to work out when the race will flash by. The only time Sky’s regular Twitter updates during a stage can frustrate is when you are planning to watch ‘as live’ from a recording later in the day. VCSE’s evening in front of the telly has been ruined on more than once by inadvertently seeing a Sky tweet on our timeline. Less likely to appear for every race, but always around for the key ones is NYvelocity (@nyvelocity) if you want to laugh along with a race.

In race social media commentary from the riders might provoke controversy, although it would be interesting to have some open mics around to listen in to the conversations through the window of the team car. VCSE doesn’t claim to slavishly follow the output of every member of the peloton, but pre and post race some riders are better value than others. Jens Voigt and Taylor Phinney spring to mind as two that can be relied upon to say something a little less anodyne.

When it comes to stats there’s plenty to choose from. VCSE is never too many clicks from Steephill.TV during the season (see the links page) for details of who finished where and aggregation of the best reporting and video. Innrg (go to the links page again) does a regular feature about where the race was won. Cycling News is probably the best news source within the UK, but there are often (more) interesting perspectives from elsewhere in the world. Velonews (US) and Cycling Tips (Australia) are worth a bookmark.

So, what is the VCSE take on the opening week of 2014 road race season? Orica’s Simon Gerrans won a record third TDU title to go with his second Australian road race jersey. The Aussie outfit had a bit of breakthrough year in 2013 with Gerrans wearing yellow at the Tour. That Matt White’s return as DS after his doping ban coincided with this suggests that the team could be one to watch in the classics this season. Gerrans is a previous winner at Milan San Remo and if his form continues could be worth a punt in 2014.

Five seconds off the GC and a stage winner during the week was Lampre’s Diego Ulissi. The Italians have under performed in the last few years but a management shake up in the off season might suggest that Ulissi’s podium could be the first of many. Lampre have the world champion Rui Costa on their Merida’s this season and he’s a rider capable of freelancing some wins in 2014. The fact that the new team uniform is less lairy than recent years (the fluro pink has been turned down) must help too surely! With a further stage win taken by Sacha Modelo on the final stage at San Luis Lampre start the year at the dizzy heights of 4th in the UCI team rankings.

Is Marcel Kittel’s misfiring sprint cause for concern? This early in the season; probably not and it isn’t as if Kittel hasn’t won already this year (at the TDU prequel). Andre Greipel took two stage wins but takes the VCSE award for the best team kit of this year in Lotto’s homage to Merckx and Molteni. Talking of sprinters Mark Cavendish wasn’t able to repeat a stage win in Argentina with Tom Boonen finishing the stronger in the bunch sprints. Last year Cav went from San Luis to the overall in Qatar. Last year was a disaster for Boonen. Cavendish has complained in the past that his Omega Pharma team need to make up the mind what kind of team they want to be. Could it be that everything will be focused on getting Boonen in top condition for the classics at the expense of early season wins for Cavendish?

In a nutshell then, the VCSE predictions for the early season; another tilt at Milan San Remo for Gerrans, Lampre resurgent and all for Boonen at Omega Pharma.

Should be an interesting watch..

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

Team of the Year 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rider of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race of the Year 

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

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

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

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

A victory for old men and baldies – VCSE’s Racing Digest #19

Vuelta a Espana final week

What a difference a week makes. In our last post we wondered whether or not Chris Horner would have be able to continue to bring the fight to (at that time) race leader Vincenzo Niblai in the final week of Spain’s grand tour. Horner was lying in second place, 50 seconds behind as the race entered its final week and its final day in the Pyrenees. 

Français : Christopher Horner au Tour de Calif...
Christopher Horner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weekend stages from week 2 suffered the misfortune of poor weather in proportion to how much they had been built up by the organisers and in previews. Inclement weather had a similar impact on the high mountain stages in the Giro earlier this year also and there was a slight feeling of anticlimax as the Vuelta entered its final week. The second week of the race had lacked some of the drama of the first week too. With one stage to go before the second rest day Nibali looked comfortable and unlike the earlier stages when the leaders jersey had seemed like a burden he was unwilling to shoulder by the end of the second week the Sicilian and his Astana teammates were geared to defend the lead.

If the wheels didn’t completely fall off for Nibali on stage 16 they were severely loosened. Horner far from fading was showing signs of being the stronger of the two GC rivals as Nibali cracked for the first time.

But first we had more signs of potential renaissance for French Cycling as Warren Barguil won a second stage. In the break again as with his earlier stage victory Barguil was caught as the ramps of the final climb steepened. It’s perhaps crediting Barguil with the experience of, say, a Chris Horner to suggest that his second win was planned that way. Maybe Sky’s Rigoberto Uran burnt to many matches catching the Frenchman. Whatever the tactics, or sheer good fortune on display it was Barguil that outsprinted everyone to the line, if you can sprint up a 10% ramp.

As Barguil crossed the line to yet more ‘the new Hinault’ comparisons there was drama unfolding in the GC further down the climb. Joaquim Rodriguez attacked and only Horner could respond. Nibali found himself on the back of the small group of remaining GC riders. As Horner extended the gap the Astana rider was being overhauled by the lower reaches of the top 10 like Net App’s Leopold Konig. In what would become a bit of a theme for the race Alejandro Valverde, unable to match the sharp bursts of acceleration of a Rodriguez or Nibali, often got back on as normal speeds resumed. He and Thibaut Pinot, having something of a grand tour rehabilitation on the Vuelta, were with Horner as he crossed the line. As Nibali finished the stage Horner was 22 seconds closer to the man that, for now at least, retained the race lead.

The final ‘flat’ stage came on Wednesday and the last chance for the sprinters before the finale in Madrid on Sunday. However, another theme of this years race has been the unexpected happening and stage 17 was no different. With so many of the first line sprinters missing from the race a winner emerging from an unheralded source or a win for someone less recognised for their fast leg was a distinct possibility. As the teams tried to get themselves organised with all of the coordination of herding cats a Belkin rider sprang clear from the bunch with some way still to go. There seems to be a collective blink from the peloton when this happens along the lines of “He didn’t? Did he?”. That the man going clear was Tour top 10 finisher and sometime GC contender Bauke Mollema explains the collective surprise of the bunch. By the time the peloton had pinched themselves and got into gear the damage had been done and Belkin had their prize to take home from Spain.

The GC would be decided on the next three stages that all featured summit finishes. Sky were another team who had quickly shed their GC ambitions with Sergio Henao looking exposed pretty much as soon as the race started going uphill on stage 2. With his compatriot (and probably the better hope for GC) Rigoberto Uran bound for Omega Pharma Sky refocused their ambitions towards stage wins. Sky’s domestiques have looked a bit more human since the Tour and it was surprise Tour withdrawl Vasil Kiryenka that delivered a consolation for Sky at the Vuelta. Kiryenka at least looked as if he found the going harder than he seemed to while riding like a metronome on the the front of the peloton in the early season races. Teams don’t hire riders like Kiryenka for stage wins and he actually smiled as he crossed the line. Nibali’s race was beginning to fall apart in a repeat of stage 16 as the GC approached the finish. As Horner rode away from him again the cushion that had lost a significant amount of stuffing on Monday was left almost empty by the end of stage 18.

Further down the GC Saxo’s Nicolas Roche was enjoying the sort of positive press the English speaking media often transfer to the Irish in the absence of a homegrown rider to cheer. Roche did a lot to generate this goodwill by being a willing and very open interviewee even when he had lost time during the second week. He was engaged in his own battle with Domenico Pozzovivo, riding for Roche’s old team AG2R, for 5th place. Vying with Roche for most cooperative with the media was Horner, always ready with something quotable, homespun or both. Inevitably for Horner, his age, the fact that he’s an ex teammate of Lance Armstrong and most importantly his performance led to questions about whether or not his race was something we should believe in. Unfortunately for the American this is where he has been less at ease in front of the microphone. Jens Voight commentating on ITV’s coverage suggested that Horner was perhaps “..less tired” than his rivals but the questions and doubts will probably continue to run parallel to the plaudits that have come Horner’s way.

Horner overhauled Nibali’s 3 second advantage on stage 19 and took the same margin into the penultimate day on the Alto de L’Angliru. Rodriguez had taken a few seconds back on Valverde by winning the previous day and the race to decide the podium positions would be the under card for the battle for the red jersey between Horner and Nibali. In the current issue of Pro Cycling magazine Nibali and his teammates talked about how they had upset the science of Sky’s attempt to win Tirreno Adriatico for Chris Froome by old fashioned tactics. This resonated during the stage as Astana put so many riders in the break an observer could have been forgiven for thinking that Nibali had already thrown in the towel. The Angliru represented less than 10% of the total distance of the stage but all the action took place on its unforgiving gradients. As riders from the break began to come back to the leaders Nibali attacked. Initially Horner and the others appeared to have nothing in response but slowly they were able to get back on to Nibali’s wheel. Nibali put in a number of accelerations as the climb went on but he never had the same distance he took in his first attack. At this point his teammates who had gone in the break should have come into play. Sean Kelly commented that he expected the Astana domestiques to “..stop and wait” for their team leader. No doubt part of the Astana post race inquiry will be to ask why they didn’t play their cards in hand better but the moment and advantage was lost.

The Angliru shrouded in fog represented something of war zone, sheer numbers of fans and the gradient preventing the camera bikes from keeping up with the action. As another French rider, FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde claimed the win and France’s best grand tour performance at least in terms of stages wins since 1990 we waited to see who would emerge from the clouds for the GC. Horner wasn’t able to maintain his out of the saddle for the entire climb but he was able to put 30 seconds plus into Nibali and all but confirm his victory in the Vuelta 2013.

Horner entered the race without a contract for next year; given his age this was not surprising. He has apparently been offered a year by Trek now and it’s not hard to imagine that they will want to milk the marketing opportunities that a ‘farewell’ race program for Horner and Voight could bring. This assumes that there won’t be any skeletons in the cupboard. Horner wants is to savour something that “…you may never see again”. Some commentators already see this as hubris. It says so much about the a current levels of trust in the sport that a ‘surprise’ win cannot be enjoyed as just that. Horner has won one of the premier events in the cycling calendar and the questions that come with that are inevitable. It’s also probably incumbent on anyone winning a major race these days to set out their position on doping. This may yet come, but VCSE suspects that questions will remain, sadly, about the provenance of the victory of the oldest ever grand tour winner.

Tour of Britain begins 

The week long Tour of Britain has begun and VCSE will be at the race again this year. There’s a really strong line up this year, surpassing even last year’s when the country was basking in Bradley Wiggins Tour victory and gold medals at the Olympics. Wiggins features again and is supposedly “motivated” for this years race. Sadly, Wiggins has been quoted similarly for his other ‘comeback’ races this year and he treated last years event with  a certain amount of disdain, riding back down the route at one point in search of a teammate before climbing off and abandoning.

The teammate that Wiggins was seeking to round up on that stage last year was Mark Cavendish and he is present again this year with Omega Pharma. Cav’s attempts to win opening stages of races hasn’t been going well of late and today’s finish in Scotland was no different. Omega Pharma’s latest incarnation of the Cavendish sprint train was present with Alessandro Petacchi. The misfires that have effected the squad all year were present too unfortunately and Cavendish had given up the chase long before the line. Petacchi was second and may expect to be reminded of what he’s been hired to do if Cav isn’t in the philosophical mood he was in after losing the last stage of the Tour.

Last years winner Jonathan Tiernan Locke is absent, Sky have selected him for the races currently taking place in Canada and JTL is in a team including Froome and Porte. They will no doubt argue that putting him in that squad is an indication of the importance of that series to them but for VCSE it’s perhaps another example of Sky’s PR mismanagement. Surely they can’t suggest that given the choice Tiernan Locke wouldn’t rather be in the UK. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the rider leaves the team at the end of his contract, if not sooner.

An interesting match up for the GC and certainly the time trial at the TOB will be Wiggins verses Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. Much is being made of the TT stage being run over the same 10 mile distance that is used by cycling clubs across the land. Dowsett attacked towards the end of today’s stage and VCSE suspects that he’s up for the challenge of beating the illustrious Sky team leader in their home race.

We will be at the race for the start of the penultimate stage on Saturday and will look to bring you pictures, video and comment from the day in our next post.

So close – VCSE’s Racing Digest #17

Vuelta a Espana week 1 

For a rider who suggested he might use the final grand tour of the year as preparation for the world championship Vicenzo Nibali spent the first week of the Vuelta as a somewhat reluctant race leader. The Shark had indicated that he felt he had a strong Astana team supporting him and that he was feeling good ahead of the race, but he was still adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Astana’s victory in the team time trial was still something of a surprise though. Radioshack and Omega Pharma were being marshalled by Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin respectively. If the rumours are to be believed Cancellara is targeting both the road and TT world’s and he has been showing more of an interest in TT’s since returning to racing after the spring classics. With Astana winning the question was who would be donning the red leaders jersey. Anyone but Nibali was the answer, although a rider of his skill wouldn’t be seen obviously hitting the brakes to avoid crossing the line first.

English: Nicolas Roche (IRE) at stage 17 of th...
Vuelta stage winner and wk 1 leader Nico Roche in AG2R days(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first week has thrown up some stage wins that the neutral fan can enjoy. Leopold Konig leading wild card invitee’s Net App Endura almost snatched victory on stage two only to be overhauled in the closing metres by Katusha’s Dani Moreno. Moreno in turn was caught at the moment the final climb leveled out by Saxo Bank rider Nicolas Roche. Moving to Saxo from AG2R caused many people to question the motivation in this son of a grand tour winner. Roche has seemed happy riding in support of Alberto Contador at this years Tour and he appears to have come out of that race in better shape than Saxo’s nominal team leader for the Vuelta Roman Kreuziger. While Kreuziger hasn’t really started this week Roche has collected jersey’s as well as stage wins wearing the combined and KOM jerseys before taking the ultimate prize of the leaders red jersey ahead of today’s stage from Nibali.

Nibali wished the leader was anyone but him earlier in the week. Chris Horner who took over the GC after winning stage 3 was upset to find himself handing the jersey back to Nibali after stage 4. Nibali’s response was that the Radioshack rider was “..welcome to it”. Horner’s win proved that he wasn’t the only ‘old man’ in Radioshack colours that could win a stage.* The sprint stages over the next three days were quiet for the GC but anything but for the viewers. Actually, that’s not entirely true; the stage 7 finish was good, stage 6 will live long in the memory. The curse of the rainbow jersey seems well settled on Philippe Gilbert’s shoulders and with this years championship imminent he remains without a win. He probably would have had one after staging a late break in the last few kilometres on Friday but for Zdenek Stybar his co-escapee. Stybar opportunistically set off in pursuit of Gilbert and after doing a few turns to ensure their break ‘stuck’ left the hard work to the world champion. As things stood the gap on the line was a tyre’s width and you were left with the sense that if Stybar had taken his turn Gilbert might have won. He was gracious in defeat, philosophical even and that elevates him in VCSE’s opinion.

As exciting as Gilbert’s near miss was Tony Martin’s result the day before is probably the greatest 7th place pro cycling will ever see. Martin had set out to achieve a solo break on stage 6 as a very public training ride for the world TT championship. As the end of the stage approached his lead had fallen to a matter of seconds as the sprinters teams lined up to lead out their fast men. Then the lead was going back up; Martin riding between 65-70 KPH was average 5-10 KPH faster than the peloton. It was out of the seat stuff as Martin summoned his last reserves of energy to go for the line. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that riders should never look back and it’s more likely that Martin was already so far into the red that he didn’t have anything left to counter the onrushing sprinters. Of course, they were never going to pull up before the line and let Martin have the glory of what would have been one of the most incredible stage wins ever seen. Respect came later, for the riders like actual stage winner Michael Morkov there was their moment in the sun to enjoy first. Martin later revealed he received more messages of support, condolence.. whatever following this result than any of his world championships. Check it out for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Konig, remember him? The Net App team leader had his revenge on Saturday. With a near 1000 metre ascent to the finish even Nibali struggled on the final climb of the stage. Net App had ‘done a Sky’ on the front of the bunch all day but it was a question of timing for Konig after his stage 2 attempt had been squashed by Moreno. The Katusha rider had a dig here too, but Konig had the legs to take a major win for his division two outfit to go with his last stage victory at this years Tour of California. Nibali’s difficulties handed the race lead to Roche and capped a week that even he would not have dared to dream about at the start of the race. With Kreuziger picked as leader following his strong showing at the Tour it’s clear it wasn’t part of Saxo’s plan either.

Moreno keeps popping up though. Today’s stage with a uphill finish through town of the kind that Joaquim Rodriguez specialises in. With a gradient of 27% in places it was Moreno who powered ahead of his Katusha team leader and into the race lead as the race enters it’s second week. Added to his stage win earlier in the week Saxo might not be the only team switching priorities.

 

 

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

You remember Zdenek Stybar don’t you? No? He’s the eight year professional with Omega Pharma Quick Step last seen being nerfed out of the race at Paris Roubiax. After an injury blighted season the cyclo-crosser come road racer resurfaced at last weeks Eneco Tour and not only won two stages but the overall as well. It could well have been three stage wins out of the seven on offer, but the Czech rider just missed out to Team Sky’s David Lopez who won stage 6 on the legendary La Redoute climb. Describing his win as “..dream come true” after knee surgery that forced him to miss this years Tour de France Stybar triumphed across a parcours that featured many of the ascents that feature in the Belgian spring classics.

Ian Stannard
Ian Stannard (Photo credit: Brendan A Ryan)

Winning the final stage was the icing on the cake but the party was almost spoiled by another member of the Sky squad bidding for a stage win. Ian Stannard may be developing a bit of a reputation as a bridesmaid after hard graft results in someone else taking the glory, but ‘Yogi’ has enhanced his reputation again here following his dogged pursuit of the win at this years Milan San Remo and a strong support role at the Tour. Stannard is without doubt an ‘engine’ which may not be to his advantage in the cat and mouse game that is the final kilometre of a stage. However, he does look like a rider that can do a job for Sky on this type of terrain. He’s likely to have protected status for the classics next season, but Sky’s team leader may yet have to show his face. INRNG suggests that Sylvain Chavanel will be riding for a Pinarello shod team next season. It’s hard to imagine Movistar prioritising the classics and Sky need a ‘face’ who’s a proven winner in the Juan Antonia Flecha mould (ah.. hold on a sec.. should say potential winner). With Sky rumoured to have courted Fabian Cancellara before he re-signed with Trek, the need for a marquee classics signing increased and Chavanel fits the bill.

Unfortunately for Sky, the UK is more likely to inspire stage race and grand tour wannabes as the country continues to ride on the wave of interest sparked by multiple Tour de France wins. In the short term they may have to rely on brought in talent from overseas to realise their goal of a classics win.

The had been talk of that student of road racing history and folklore Sir Bradley Wiggins bulking back up for a tilt at Paris Roubaix. Wiggins followed up his low key return to racing in the Tour of Poland with a similarly disinterested appearance at Eneco. In Poland intentions were clear with Wiggins surrendering his leaders position to Sergio Henao. A week or so later in the low countries and with a strong team around him, the sight of Wiggins going out the back on stage one was a pretty strong indicator that he wasn’t focused on the GC. The often mis-firing Sky PR machine was wheeled out with the big reveal that he would be going for victory in the TT, further preparation for the world championships in September.

The TT stage over a not quite prologue like 13 or so kilometres was technical, not the length or route that Wiggins would chosen, but expectations would have been high for a win. A sense that the wheels were coming off at least figuratively became apparent when Radioshack’s Jesse Sergent crossed the line 15 seconds faster. Ironic if Chavanel is Sky bound as it was the French TT winner who ended up taking the stage.

Taking everything into account about the distance and technical nature of the course this is more of a bump in the road as opposed to the kind of setback that Wiggins endured in the Giro. There’s a sense that he is still something of a fragile character after Italy, so the focus on his strongest discipline is understandable. While Chris Froome was arguably the stronger on the climbs during Wiggin’s Tour win in 2012, Froome is yet to beat him against the clock. If anything Wiggins seems to become more reconciled to his position in the team with interviews over the last few weeks describing how he wouldn’t expect to lead a GC assault if Froome was in the same squad and now indicating a return to track cycling for the 2016 Olympics.

The weeks racing was interesting also for the ability of individual riders to upset the bunch sprint. This was played out to greatest effect in stage 1 with a sprinter actually causing the break. Whether by accident of design Omega Pharma destined Belkin rider Mark Renshaw pulled off an enjoyable (for this viewer anyway) upset that seemed to surprise most of the peloton and maybe even some of his teammates. There’s a link to Renshaw’s power data for the stage on our Facebook site.

Wiggins isn’t the only rider having a year to forget. Current world road race champion Philippe Gilbert had another week to forget at Eneco and is without a win this year. If there is a ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ there aren’t many better ways to illustrate it. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta with a similar uphill finish to his favourite Fleche Wallone. How he (and BMC) will be hoping for a similar result for this years race.

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

After the hype ahead of this years Giro and the 100th Tour the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana is facing an uphill struggle for attention every bit as steep as the Alto de L’Angliru. Last years edition benefited from Alberto Contador’s return to grand tour racing. Not surprisingly, Spanish riders are always up for the home races and last year was no exception with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez joining Contador in the GC battle. Hard as it is to imagine after his dominant form this year that the 2012 Vuelta was the first race for Chris Froome as an official team leader.

Froome, fatigued from his efforts supporting Bradley Wiggins in the Tour, faded as the Vuelta’s climbs became steeper and eventually finished far from disgraced in 4th. The early leader was Rodriguez, but he was to experience disappointment again as with his runner up spot in the Giro earlier the same year. Rodriguez was expected to lose his lead to Froome or Contatdor during the TT, but he survived until Contador attacked on a relatively innocuous looking stage 17 and rode away for the stage win. Rodriguez left exposed on the stage took another kick as a resurgent Valverde overhauled his 2nd place. Contador, whatever anyone might think of his provenance looked imperious and anyone watching would have predicted that 2013’s strongest rider was likely to be the recently returned Spaniard.

The race was notable for the emergence of John Degenkolb, who dominated the sprint stages for Argos Shimano, taking five altogether.  VCSE’s stage of the race was the solo win by local pro-conti Caja Rural rider Antonio Piedra at the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.

So, what of this years version? Just as the Tour, last years winner is missing. Contador pulled out from the race before the Tour had even finished and Saxo Bank will be led by Contador’s ‘shadow’ at the Tour Roman Kreuzinger. Froome has massively transcended his situation from last year, where team leadership at the Vuelta was his reward for helping Wiggins at the Tour. Based on that train of thought might we have expected Richie Porte to lead Sky in Spain? No, Froome and Porte are in the US for the Pro Challenge. Sky as they are minded to do will probably select their Spanish riders like Lopez and Xandio in support and lead with the Columbian’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. Team leader will probably be Henao. Uran’s departure to Omega Pharma will be a mark against the rider who if not physically stronger, seems to have the psychological edge over his compatriot.

Although they have had a month to recover it remains to be seen if Rodriguez or Valverde can summon up the reserves to take them two or one place further respectively this time around. Valverde’s Tour fell apart after the wind effected stage from Tours in week two. Shorn of team leaders responsibilities he was able to animate the race in the final week, peaking similarly to the Vuelta last year. For all of the success Valverde’s Movistar team have achieved with several stage wins in this years Giro and Tour, it’s the Vuelta that is the biggest prize for a Spanish sponsored and based team. The Columbian connection continues with AG2R bringing Carlos Betancur. Betancur’s performances in the Giro have been overshadowed by Quintana’s Tour successes, but the AG2R man should come into the race with fresher legs. Rodriguez looked ecstatic with third place in the Tour but surely has ambitions beyond a podium place at every grand tour.

Dan Martin will lead Garmin and has said that he is going for GC, but may be better placed for stage wins, the aim of Orica Green Edge. With extinction looming riders from Euskatel will be looking to put in some strong performances in their home race to reinforce their pitch for a new berth next season. It’s disappointing that so many riders have publicly declared that they are using the Vuelta for training but this should at least allow for allow for some open racing. There’s some interest in the wild cards too with Net App Endura securing an invitation to this years race to provide some Anglo German interest.

So, we have mentioned riders returning to major action since the Giro like Betancur and Uran, but what of the Giro winner. Vincenzo Nibali, the only rider to have beaten Chris Froome in head to head competition this year has performed in almost as low a key as Wiggins since his Giro win. Knowing the Italian was missing the Tour this year to focus on the Giro it was reasonable to think that he would tilt at a Giro Veulta double. Since then Nibali has announced his late season focus is on the world championships being held in Florence in September. A Nibali in form, the same form as he showed in the Giro and earlier in the season, would be an easy prediction for the overall. Nibali is a pretty straight shooter so if he says he isn’t going for GC it will be pretty clear if it’s a smoke screen when the race starts going uphill.

VCSE’s GC Prediction – 1. Valverde 2. Rodriguez 3. Betancur (unless Nibali decides to ride and then all bets are off!)

For the second year ITV4 will be showing an hour long highlights show. Live coverage will be on Eurosport (this obviously applies for UK viewers).

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

Stage 8 (Saturday 31st August) Jerez de la Frontera to Estapona – Actually a cat 1 summit finish with the race visiting the far south of the country.

Stage 14 (Saturday 7th September) Baga to Andorra – Features the highest climb of the race, the 2380m Port de Envalira

Stage 15 (Sunday 8th September) Andorra to Peyragudes – The longest stage of the race crossing into France and over the Col de Peyresourde and 3 more 1st Cat climbs.

Stage 20 (Saturday 15th September) Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru – The traditional penultimate stage with the Hors Category summit finish.

And here’s the GCN view

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

Tour de Pologne 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

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

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

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

Omega Pharma for GC? 

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

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

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

Ride London  

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

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

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

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

Froome set to win his first Tour – VCSE’s Racing Digest #13

As the late, great Kenneth Wolstenhome said “They think it’s all over..” and with one stage left to shuffle the GC classification it’s hard to see Team Sky’s Chris Froome losing his lead and the Maillot Jaune. VCSE’s prediction for the 2013 Tour de France looks safe, but as we went for most peoples favourite it was a pretty safe bet. Froome has ridden a dominant race. He has won two stages in the final week including Sunday’s summit finish at Mont Ventoux and the rather more closely fought second Time Trial stage in the Alps on Wednesday.

Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome (Tassin la de...
Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome & Team Sky (Photo credit: Stwayne Keubrick)

After winning the first stage in the Pyrenees on a very similar profile the likelihood was that Froome could achieve the same outcome on Ventoux as he had done at Ax 3 Domaines. The resemblance between the stage profile was mirrored by the result as Movistars Nairo Quintana attacked only to be reeled in and eventually defeated by the Sky mans pace. And rather like his first win this year it was Froome’s pace that gathered the most headlines afterwards.

Whether it’s the first post Lance ‘confession’ Tour or a dig at the rider / team or a combination of all three Team Sky in general and Chris Froome in particular have suffered a huge amount of scrutiny during this race. It had reached enough of a crescendo on the second rest day that Sky decided to counter punch with the release of Froome’s power data to L’Equipe and his biological information to WADA. It’s possibly a little unfair on the rider that he has had to deal with the volume and intensity of “Is he doping?” questions that come his way, directly or indirectly via social media. In previous generations (read pre Lance) the way Froome has gone about his attempt to win this Tour would have been celebrated. Three stage wins, including two summit finishes and the way he rode unsupported for an entire day in the Pyrenees is the stuff of legend. Yet he has been dogged by the doping question throughout the race in a way that only in the last couple of days (and perhaps not until the race finishes) has the tone of the reporting calmed down. In contrast to Sky’s erstwhile team leader Wiggins, Froome seems not to want to cause offence and perhaps an expletive laden rebuttal a la Wiggo might have silenced some of the doubters. The media have been quick to jump on any unfortunate quote or quip from the race leader to try and illustrate a tenuous guilt by association to the Tour’s fallen idols, but at least the sideshow appears to be abating now that Sky have wrested back control of the agenda with their information release.

It has felt a bit like the only thing that could derail the Sky train this year was themselves. In 2012 Sky established complete control over the peloton and while breakaways happened the rivals that mattered were kept firmly in the place by metronomic, power metered pace. This suited a team leader like Bradley Wiggins who essentially has one gear, but in 2013 Sky have Froome who is able to deliver multiple changes of pace even if he could be an illustration to define the phrase ‘win ugly’ with his all arms and legs riding style. And how they have needed Froome this year as the Sky train has been largely non existent. Other than his summit wins, the supporting cast (with the notable exception of Richie Porte) have been bit part players often falling away when Sky’s rivals have had domestiques in hand. Pete Kennaugh had another good ride on the Ventoux stage, but the other riders have suffered in comparison to say Movistar and Saxo Bank’s supporting cast. Of course, Sky lost Vasil Kireyenka early in the race, but they lost a similar engine last year without the same effect. Froome will n0 doubt show a great deal of humility and thank his team if he wins, but for VCSE at least the seeds for the victory were laid when he was alone in the Pyrenees on stage 9.

When Chris Froome is casting around for people to thank he should also spare a thought or two for the respective managers and strategists at Movistar and Saxo Bank. As brave as Froome was across the cols of the Pyrenees his opponents were indecisive or unwilling to deliver a fatal blow allowing the Sky rider to retain the lead and be in a position to consolidate it during the first time trial. Other than an opportunistic break on the wind effected stage 13 by Saxo Bank the opportunities to put some hurt onto Froome and Sky have largely been missed. For Saxo Bank Alberto Contador has been ably supported by Roman Kreuziger to the extent that the Amstel Gold winner has a solid top 10 result to look forward to. Contador had said he had his “..strongest ever team” going into this Tour but even if his teams tactics have been misplayed even Alberto admits that he cannot match Froome one on one. Whether climbing the Ventoux or on the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez Contador just hasn’t had the legs to see off the Maillot Jaune.

It was Movistar who had put Sky under pressure on stage 9 and Nairo Quintana who looked like their rider most likely to profit from a Sky slip, but the Spanish team suffered from not knowing which horse to back. Alejandro Valverde’s untimely wheel change on stage 13 settled that but while Quintana was able to move up the GC and take over the young rider classification it was hard to see him challenging to overhaul the top two. Where Movistar have profited this week is from stage wins from breaks and it’s all thanks to just one rider. Rui Costa book ended the second TT and the Alpe d’Huez stages with two fine solo victories. VCSE predicts a swansong for Valverde in this years Vuelta, but expect to see Costa and Quintana as the GC hopes for Movistar next year.

With neither Movistar or Saxo able to put Sky under much pressure in the Alps this week the excitement has needed to come from elsewhere and Thursday’s queen stage to Alp d’Huez had all of this and more. Encroaching fans on climbs are probably considerably more frustrating to negotiate for a rider than they are borderline tedious to the armchair viewer. The fans lining the hairpins on the Alp take things to a whole different level however. For the leading group any hope of attacking on the climb was ruled out in favour of just surviving the no doubt well-intentioned gauntlet of fans. The second and final ascent fell into two distinct halves; those riders that still had something to race for and those who would be just happy to finish and ‘would have that beer thank you’  as they passed Dutch corner. In the 100th Tour no French rider had one a stage before the Alp and for a large portion of the race that looked as if it would remain. BMC’s Tejay van Garderen had imploded in the Pyrenees and this was going to be his salvation. A mechanical on the descent of the Col de Sarenne held him up for a while but he was the first rider onto the Alp for the final ascent. His lead began to plummet as he climbed and the remnants of the peloton raced along the valley floor, but of closer and more urgent concern was the pace of AG2R’s Christophe Riblon. Riblon had finished second to Costa earlier in the week and must have felt the weight of that near miss along with the need to win something for the team after his teammate and highest placed French GC rider Jean-Christophe Peraud had abandoned after a double crash and fracture on the previous days TT. As both riders emerged from the crowds into the barriered section of the course it was clear that the Frenchman was catching Van Garderen. You had to feel for the American and as Riblon closed in thoughts of the two riding together Hinault and Lemond style to the line flickered. But no, Riblon showed no mercy, riding past without a moments hesitation and any suggestion of ruthlessness towards Van Garderen was quickly forgotten as the prospect of a French stage win on this stage in this race dawned over the fans, the commentators and the viewers at home. Alongside Chris Froome’s solo battle on stage 9 in the Pyrenees and with two stages still to go a contender for the stage of the Tour.

Today’s stage promised much but didn’t really deliver. The second win for Costa was well taken, but Sky seemed to be given a fairly easy day on a potential banana skin parcours. Of course there is one more GC stage to come, a short and sharp 120 kilometres to Mont Semnoz outside Annecy. Will there be a last roll of the dice? Taking more than 4 minutes out of Froome at this point would probably involve an attack of epic proportions from Saxo and or Movistar from the flag. VCSE’s view is that the opportunity has passed and if anything changes tomorrow it will be the podium places. Katusha’s Jaoquim Rodriguez has climbed up the GC this week and he could be the rider to shake up the places in search of a podium spot. Otherwise it’s down to the teams and riders that need to make an impression with time running out for them; an Andy Schleck or Jakob Fuglsang perhaps?

And so we will leave the mountains and head for the nocturne in Paris. Can Mark Cavendish get five in a row on the Champs Elysee. It will no doubt come down to which sprinter has left enough in his legs following a week in the Alps, but the VCSE Top 3 prediction would be from these; Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel.

 

Tour de France 2013 – VCSE’s fans eye view

Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier
Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier

As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.

To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.

As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.

Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier 

Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.

It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.

The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.

The Banette Baguette man
The Banette Baguette man

These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.

All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:

A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.

Free Fabric softener anyone? - The Tour publicity caravan
Free Fabric softener anyone? – The Tour publicity caravan

And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.

At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.

After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*

Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6
Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6

With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.

Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan

Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.

We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.

The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7
The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7

You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.

VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.

*Boasson Hagen was 3rd on GC going into Stage 8