In the Pink – VCSE’s Racing Digest #5

The wait is finally over. The 2013 Giro d’Italia started in Naples yesterday with the opening sprint stage followed by today’s team time trial on the nearby island of Ischia. The Giro was returning to the city for the first time since 1996 and Mark Cavendish was targeting his first win in his campaign for the points jersey that he just missed out on last year. Unlike the Tour where sprinters are favoured in the points competition Cavendish will have to work harder in Italy as the climbers earn the same points as the fast men.

As is so often the case in a three week grand tour a combination of nerves and excitement within the peloton leads to a crash and stage 1 was no exception. Perhaps it didn’t help that this years race started with an additional nine riders (thanks to Katusha’s reinstatement to the world tour) after Giro organisers RCS had sent out the inevitable wild card invitations to the Italian pro-continental teams. While some riders couldn’t avoid getting caught up in the pile up just before the end of the stage FDJ’s Laurent Pichon managed to fall off while descending early on, in an echo of the bizarre accident of teammate Yoann Offredo at this years Paris Roubaix.

The big question for the sprint was whether Omega Pharma had got their lead out organised for Cavendish. The team was working hard at the front of the peloton all day which was possibly the outcome that Cannondale wanted when they sent Aussie rider Cameron Wurf up the road. If Wurf managed to get the other riders in the breakaway to cooperate and make the chase harder then Cannondale’s sprinter Elia Viviani could take advantage. The tactic seemed to have paid off as Omega Pharma ran out of riders for Cavendish as the stage reached it’s climax. There were a number of tricky corners to be negotiated on the run in and the crash that seemed inevitable took out Argos Shimano sprinterJohn Degenkolb  and spilt the peloton completely. As the riders who had avoided trouble wound up the speed Matt Goss looked well placed; Orica managing to maintain their lead out better than their rivals. Cavendish looked like he was in an impossible position, many wheels off the front where Goss and Viviani were going for the line. It’s a measure of just how good a sprinter Cavendish is that he was able to overcome a combination of getting boxed in (by FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni), needing to switch from left hand side to the right and overhauling Goss and (a visibly frustrated) Viviani by at least a bike length to win.

So Cavendish was into the Maglia Rosa in a script that would have delighted the organisers and designer of this years leaders jersey Sir Paul Smith. Cavendish was certainly all smiles and in a cooperative mood for the media crush that followed. Largely absent from social media in the last few weeks he had returned to Twitter before the start. While complimentary about his teammates in general terms he kept his views on the merits of his lead out to himself in his post race tweet. The victory, entirely manufactured by Cavendish, took the focus away from the effectiveness or otherwise of the Omega Pharma lead out.

The island of Ischia had waited rather longer that Naples for a Giro return. In a discipline where he is demonstrably stronger than GC rival Vincenzo Nibali, Bradley Wiggins was looking for a repeat of the TTT win Sky secured in the Giro Trentino a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough Sky were pretty dominant with only Movistar looking likely to beat their time at the half way stage. VCSE suspects Nibali won’t be too disappointed with finishing 14 seconds down.

Adding to the list of things to discuss at the Omega Pharma team meeting is their performance today. These are the world champions remember and while Tony Martin isn’t at the Giro finishing 48 seconds down and 17th cannot have been part of the game plan. Mark Cavendish demeanor was the polar opposite of last night, although it has to be said that the Paul Smith skinsuit is not a great look so every cloud etc. Omega Pharma weren’t the only team with time trial pedigree who didn’t perform. Both Garmin and BMC will be disappointed with their results and defending champion Ryder Hejesdal  goes into stage 3 25 seconds down on the GC. So it’s a Sky rider leading the GC but not the team leader. While Wiggins finished the stage on the same time as his four teammates today, the first Sky rider across the line yesterday was Salvatore Puccio. While Puccio’s Maglia Rosa is more by accident than design Sky will probably be pleased that they don’t have to try to defend Wiggins in the jersey at such an early stage. Stage 8 an individual time trial is where we should expect to see Sir Wiggo taking over.

Four Days of Dunkirk

Races in France seem to have their own idiosyncracies when it comes to race names actually reflecting the race itself. Paris Roubaix is a classic example. Since 1968 it has started in Compiegne, around 40 miles north of the French capital. The Four days of Dunkirk is another in that it takes place over five days rather than four. Go figure.

The GC was won by FDJ’s Arnaud Demare with seven French riders in the top 10 on the overall standings. FDJ just looked super organised in the three stages VCSE caught on Eurosport before the Giro grabbed all of the airtime. While the first two stages had a parcours that promised a sprint finish, stage three offered something for the teams prepared to put someone in the break. With no race radios it was great to see a team get things right tactically the old school way.

The phrase ‘un peloton a deux vitesses’ was coined originally in France to reflect the difference in performance between riders who doped and didn’t. After the Festina scandal in 1998 the axis of power shifted away from French teams to, first, the anglophones and later teams from the new Europe like Astana. Strict anti doping laws were enacted after Festina forcing French registered teams to rethink their approach and in the absence of similar controls elsewhere (Spain didn’t ban sports doping until 2006) lower expectations for results. Now, with a new generation of riders seemingly more committed to racing clean French cycling is enjoying something of a resurgence.

FDJ is a bit of a contradiction is this respect. A few weeks ago in the Tro Bro Leon one day race the team scored a dominant 1-2-3 with their nearest rival finishing over a minute down. Racing in France matters to a French team of course, but the contrast between how strong FDJ have looked in these two races compared with the notoriety their riders have gained for self inflicted harm in world tour events is striking. Looking at the performances of another French world tour team AG2R, with a win in the semi classic Roma Maxima and strong showings from new signing Carlos Betancur VCSE wonders if FDJ should be showing in the big races a bit more.

Giro a distraction for Wiggo?

Conspiracy theorists had a great time dissecting the various noises emanating from the Death Star this week as Bradley Wiggins revealed that he does want to defend the yellow jersey in 2013. Backed up with ‘helpful’ quotes from coach Tim Kerrison Wiggins revealed that his preparation for the season meant that he would potentially be able to recover from three weeks racing at the Giro and peak again for the grand depart in Corsica a month later.

Clarifying a couple of days later that what he had meant to say was that Sky could go into the Tour with two leaders (Wiggins and Chris Froome) and / or decide on who to support based on the first weeks results in July. It’s sometimes hard to work out if this is something that he (Wiggins) does to mix things up a little bit. Certainly the Tour has not been mentioned since the start of the year when Froome was installed as defacto team leader with Wiggins focused on the Giro.

Froome maintained a dignified silence (almost) releasing a statement that said (among other things) “I have been reassured by the management at Team Sky that I have their full backing and at no time has the leadership of the Tour team been in question.” Froome’s fiance Michele Cound has been less circumspect predicting that the only way Wiggins and Froome would line up at the Tour would be on different teams! Surprisingly nothing ‘official’ has been said by Sky so whether or not the story develops remains to be seen. In the last VCSE Racing Digest we talked about the possibility of Sky holding back someone like Rigoberto Uran or Sergio Henao if Wiggins GC hopes in the Giro were fading. If there is something in what Wiggins says about the Tour this year might it be him that gets rested if a Giro win (or podium) looks unlikely?

Cavendish photo – http://www.tdwsport.com

Heading for the hills in the low countries – VCSE’s Racing Digest #3

Amstel Gold

First up Amstel Gold. The race has traditionally finished at the top of the Cauberg, but aping last years World Championships the line has moved to a kilometre or so along a nondescript straight section of Dutch A road including that staple of the town planner a mini roundabout. Whether or not the race benefits or even needs the change is questionable. However it does alter the dynamic of the race and potentially opens up the field of potential winners.

Roman Kreuziger
Roman Kreuziger (Photo credit: hadche)

Philippe Gilbert’s breakaway on the Cauberg at the World’s gave him the winning advantage and he was heavily trailed as a potential winner of the race, perhaps even to repeat his 2011 record of wins in all three Ardennes classics. Gilbert had been absent from the Ronde after succumbing to a virus after this years snow affected Milan San Remo and used the Tour of the Basque country to prepare for this week.

The breakaway at Amstel which included Garmin’s Johann Van Summeren and Mikel Astarloza of Euskatel. Euskatel had been abject at their home tour. It hardly looks good when you are one of the weakest links in the pro tour and a rider you have dropped animates most of the stages and wins the KOM jersey. Astarloza looked like he was making a point on behalf of the team and at takes some credit for being the last of the original group to get caught.

With the distance to go in the race at this point it should have been time for the peloton to start getting into position for the final climbs. BMC for Gilbert, Movistar for Alejandro Valverde (or even Nairo Quintana) and Astana last years winners with Enrico Gasparotto couldn’t or wouldn’t get organised but even as the race entered the final lap the eventual winner and how the race would be won wasn’t obvious.

A number of riders were now pinging off the front but these looked more like tactical efforts rather than genuine attempts to go for victory. Riders bitched about who would or wouldn’t take their turn on the front of the little groups that formed.

Watching the final moments unfold it wasn’t clear whether Roman Kreuziger’s solo away from the breakaway group was an opportunistic dig or the realisation that he could get away and perhaps even stay away from his rivals. Whatever, Kreuziger looked in great shape. Ryder Hesjedal who did a huge pull to get up to the break presciently summed up the chances of catching Kreuziger with the way he shook his head when he realised that since he had gapped the main group that Kreuziger had ridden off into the distance.

Gilbert was probably always going to attack on the Cauberg. Closest rival was Valverde who looked content to follow Gilbert’s wheel up the climb, he in turn stalked by Simon Gerrans the Omega rider adept at snatching a result this way. By the time these three reached the summit Kreuziger was already on his way to victory and able to ease up as he approached the line. For Gilbert it was clearly win or nothing as he sat up on the line to allow Valverde and Gerrans take the podium places.

Reaction to Kreuzigers win was a mixture of surprise and a feeling that maybe, finally, his talent had shown itself. Ironically Kreuziger had ridden for last years winners Astana before joining Saxo Bank this year.

Fleche Wallone 

And so to Belgium for the Fleche Wallone. Phillipe Gilbert was being touted for this one too. Last years victor Joaquin Rodriguez had fallen at Amstel but a rapidly improving prognosis saw him take the start.

Rather like Milan San Remo where the joke goes that the neutral zone lasts for 280 kilometres until the Poggio, Fleche Wallone didn’t come to life until the final climb of the Mur de Huy. BMC had done a better job of controlling the race but as the Mur approached Gilbert was pretty much unsupported.

Carlos Betancur from AG2R who had been nerfed out of a stage win in the Basque country a couple of weeks ago attacked early and put a big gap between himself and the group that stayed as the hardest section was passed. Gilbert realising it was now or never, responded although whether this was because he realised Betancur was a genuine threat or the presence of Peter Sagan alongside him wasn’t clear. Sagan blew up pretty much immediately and Gilbert soon followed him, seeming to acknowledge today wasn’t his day (again).

Betancur approaching the line was running out of legs as Dani Moreno (Katusha) began to ride clear of the field and overhaul second place man Sergio Henao of Sky. Maybe Moreno was feeling super strong up the Mur or maybe Rodrigeuz, aware that he didn’t have the legs gave him the nod. Moreno’s surge to the line was irresistible , too much for Betancur who expired at the last to hand second place to Henao. Getting pipped by Henao, the rider who beat him up in Spain probably didn’t improve Betancur’s mood as he reflected on the merits of attacking early against pro tour riders.

Nevertheless Betancur is a prospect and a potentially astute signing for AG2R as a rider who could potentially breakaway on the mountain stages at this years grand tours. For Moreno, like Kreuziger earlier in the week it’s the biggest win of his career.. so far.

Giro de Trentino 

What would probably normally be a ‘B’ team outing for the peloton through what seems like the cream of Italy’s hydro-electric infrastructure was supposedly going to be enlivened by the presence of Bradley Wiggins using the race as warm up for next weekends start in the Giro proper. Wiggins was joined by such other notables as Cadel Evans and Tirreno Adriatico winner Vincenzo Nibali. The scene was set for a contest in bragging rights, or was it?

Unlike their somewhat lacklustre performances in the classics Sky can be relied upon to set the pace at the front in stage races. Day one at Trentino saw a split stage with a team time trial making up the latter of the days racing. Whether by accident or design Sky didn’t ride and the rest of the peloton didn’t get orgainised. Result? The breakaway was allowed to stay away and with only four days racing to follow the possibility of a (relative) unknown winning was becoming the nightmare scenario for organisers and media alike.

If not Sky’s then certainly Wiggins frustration was revealed on the podium after Sky took the team time trial at a gallop pulling back a minute on the GC going into day 2. Maxime Bouet of AG2R rode into the leaders jersey on the second day and was defending just under a 4 minute advantage over Nibali as the race entered its final day with the queen stage to Sega di Ala.

Typical of many an Italian (if not Spanish) mountain stage the switchbacks up the climb increased to 20% in places but those settling back to enjoy a battle between Wiggins watching the power meter and Nibali putting in little digs to try to force an advantage were disappointed when Wiggins Di2 failed and the recalcitrant Pinerello was thrown against the cliff. While his mechanics were thanking their deity that the bike had something solid to hit rather than being pitched over the side of the mountain Wiggins set off sans SRM on a replacement bike.

While it’s known that even the pro teams account for every single item and will only discard a piece of kit if it is genuinely a write off it was surprising to see that Sky did not equip the replacement mounts with a power meter. This isn’t actually unusual within the peloton, but for team like Sky who seem pretty much a slave to how many watts they can churn out it seems like a bit of an oversight.

With Wiggins out of the picture it was left to Nibali and one time doper Mauro Santambrogio of Vini Fantini to fight it out for the stage win and potentially the overall GC. Santambrogio had been in the mix at Tirreno too and is certainly one of the strongest climbers in the pro-conti field. Nibali prevailed over the worst of the ramps and was able to time trial to the line.

For Bouet it was a question of whether he could make it to the line within 4 minutes of Nibali’s time. Neutrals couldn’t help but cheer him on to what would be by far the biggest result of his career to date. There was a sense that Bouet realised before the line that he hadn’t done enough but against the quality of field that turned up in the Trentino his podium place is certainly no disgrace.

Would Wiggins have beaten Nibali without his mechanical? VCSE suspects not. While Wiggins looks stronger than he did against the sudden accelerations that Nibali employ’s like teammate Chris Froome he looks less at ease on the steepest ramps. When Sky can control the race they look imperious but if the other teams can keep riders in hand to animate things it’s hard to see Wiggins coming up with a different result to this one against Nibali.

Spring has Sprung – VCSE’s view on the Spring Classics #1

An enforced absence and lack of wifi prevented us giving you our thoughts ahead of the first of the Spring Classics – Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. On Saturday attempts to watch the live feed from Sporza defeated the VCSE mobile and having set Sky+ to record KBK on Sunday the rest of the week was spent avoiding Flipboard and Twitter so the race could be enjoyed ‘as live’ on our return to Essex.

Initally crestfallen that the race hadn’t been recorded a quick search soon established that KBK had been cancelled due to snow! Reviewing the highlights of Het Nieuwsblad it certainly looked chilly although Heinrich Haussler managed without gloves when every other rider had the full winter ensemble on.

The race developed into a two rider battle with 26K’s to go with the little and large duo of Luca Paolini of Katusha and Stijn Vandenbergh of Omega Pharma getting away from the leading group. Vandenbergh, described by Cycling Weekly as a ‘bunch driving labourer’ had OPQS teammate Sylvain Chavanel in the group with him but when Vandenbergh broke Chavenel, perhaps tiring after an earlier breakaway, was unable to go in support.

Etiquette was followed between Vandenbergh and Paolini until they reached the last few metres and the crowd were denied a home victory as Paolini managed a passing imitation of a sprint clear to win.

Tuning up for the next races in the calendar (Ghent Wevelgem & Ronde an Vlaanderen) continues this week with Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Ahead of the two Belgian races is the first of the Monuments Milan San Remo on 17th March.

Mark Cavendish is taking part in Tirreno Adriatico although he is playing down his chances of a repeat of his 2009 (Milan San Remo) win. As far as the one day races go, with shorter (albeit) ‘punchier’ climbs and with a team that is more likely to work hard for him VCSE wouldn’t rule out another win for Cav in the first monument of 2013.

After a strong team performance from Cannondale in the Strade Bianche at the weekend the current favourite for Milan San Remo is Peter Sagan. Sagan was the ‘bogeyman’ in the Strade with the other teams so busy covering him that teammade Moreno Moser was able to get away for the victory.

VCSE’s outsiders for Milan San Remo are AG2R la Mondiale after Rafael Nocentini’s 3rd place in the Strade and victory for Blel Kadri in last Sundays Roma Maxima.