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

Tour of Flanders 2017

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

Philippe Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pais Vasco 2017

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

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

Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)

So this is my first post for getting on for a month. In previous years I would have written about the Ardennes classics, the Tour of Turkey and would be previewing the Giro about now. There’s even been an extra race added to the calendar with significant interest for British fans with last weekends Tour de Yorkshire. Trouble is I have found it really difficult to find anything good to say about the last month since Roubaix and I am going to try and explain why in this post.

Ardennes Classics

I find it a little hard to get too jazzed about the Ardennes races with the possible exception of Liege Bastogne Liege as they tend to be decided in the final few kilometres and even I can pass on the preceding 90 minutes of live coverage where nothing much will happen. Both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone will have their outcome determined by what happens on their signature climbs; the Cauberg and Mur de Huy respectively. OK the few minutes the riders feint, attack, fade or go clear on the ascents is often exciting but the results this year have been sadly predictable.

Alejandro Valverde
Alejandro Valverde

With the exception of Michael Kwiatowski timing his move to perfection on the finishing straight at Amstel the Ardennes races in 2015 have been about one rider alone; Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was second in Amstel and went one better at both La Fleche midweek and LBL the following Sunday. I have written about Valverde many times and in particular about his public lack of contrition about his ban following Operation Puerto. Interviewed in Pro Cycling this month he remains unwilling to tackle the subject of doping (past and present) and maintains a position that he was banned despite “..his arguments” that the presence of a bag of his blood didn’t indicate wrong doing. Of course it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that because Valverde was banned in 2010 he’s doping now, but it does stick in the throat that the rider who has figured so prominently in this years hilly classics is the poster boy for unrepentant dopers.

Only one other rider featured in the top ten finishers for all three Ardennes races; Etixx Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilppe who was runner up in La Fleche and LBL and 7th in Amstel. Obviously Valverde is a grand tour rider who is capable of hanging with the best of them through the Alps and Dolomites on a three week stage race but to deliver a second place and two wins says he was in the form of his life.. Or something.

So Valverde winning didn’t put me in the greatest of moods to crank out a thousand words extolling the virtues of the Ardennes classics. At least my bad luck was just confined to having to watch him take his victories. Previous LBL winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans didn’t even figure after a crash that took out several key contenders early on during the live feed. Neither rider is having a great season so far with early season injuries and illness getting compounded by these latest mishaps. Kwiatowski’s win in Amstel cements his versatility as a rider although I think he will need to decide if he’s going to be a GC rider or a one day specialist fairly soon as I think he will need to shed some timber if he’s going to become a genuine contender in the grand tours.

Continue reading Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)

The Panda’s Revenge – VCSE’s Racing Digest #29

Ardennes Classics 

Interesting that Amstel Gold was moved to the Sunday this year. Pressure from the sponsors maybe? It can’t help any race in search of an audience to be shunted into a weekday spot and weekends have to be the way to go. And before we go any further; confession time. Your correspondent didn’t manage to see the race live. Providing a decent summary of what happened was further compounded by a very short highlights slot later in the day on Eurosport that was basically the last 15km. Hardly a problem with Amstel Gold and while we’re on this subject Fleche Wallone as the races are pretty much decided on their final ascents of their signature climbs.

LBL 2014 winner - Simon Gerrans
LBL 2014 winner – Simon Gerrans

The organisers have tried to make Amstel a bit more interesting by shifting the finish line a little further up the road from the crest (you can hardly call it a summit) of the Cauberg, but with no breaks allowed to remain from earlier in the race and no one able to get off the front towards the end the race was effectlively decided in the final couple of kilometres. The was still a pretty decent sized peloton that sped down into Valkenberg and onto the Cauberg for the final time. The Cauberg is pretty much owned by Phillipe Gilbert with his previous Amstel wins and 2012 world championship and although he (still) doesn’t hold the record for most Amstel victories there isn’t a single Ardennes preview that won’t give him a mention as a potential winner.

Chief rival this year was the rider everyone loves to hate Alejandro Valverde who had stated his aim to challenge for all three races. Let’s consider this for a moment; three hard one day races in the space of seven days and Valverde is unrepentant (as he is in so many ways) that he’s going to go for the win in all three! Almost a week after the races took place and the facts are that the Movistar rider was as good as his word and he was a feature at all three. Whether or not this was the result of fantastic preparation or fantastic “preparation” remains a bit of a mystery but the facts are (for now) that for the 2014 Ardennes Classics Alejandro Valverde came away with a first, a second and a fourth.

He was beaten in Amstel by Gilbert who knows better than anyone else ‘when to go’ on the Cauberg. The feint from new for 2014 BMC teammate Sammy Sanchez may have taken the sting out of an attack by any of his rivals, but in shades of his world champs win Gilbert attacked, went clear and looked comfortable by the end of the race.

Missing at the mid week Fleche Wallone but on the podium at Amstel was Orica’s Simon Gerrans, perhaps unnoticed at the time but a portent of the Aussie national champs ability to be in the right place at the right time in a one day race. Another rider showing form ahead of the weeks headline race and one day ‘monument’ was 2013 Liege Bastogne Liege winner Dan Martin. Martin looked like he might have snatched the win in Fleche Wallone after steeing a path through his rivals up the Mur du Huy for the last time. Omega Pharma Quick Step’s Michael Kwiatowski who joined Martin on the podium looked a reasonable bet as the riders weaved up the Mur’s 19% ramp but the disappointment was all over the Poles face as Valverde skipped by talking on his mobile and eating an ice cream (OK I lied about that bit, but you get what I mean). Valverde demonstrated he’s a man without irony when he couldn’t understand why a section of the crowd booed as he took the victory garlands.

And so to LBL. Martin who famously won the race the year before chased by an inebriated steel worked in a Panda costume (spawning a bizarre marketing tie in for Garmin) looked as if he was catching the late breaking juniors race otherwise known as Domenico Pozzovivo and Giampolo Caruso. As he turned the final corner though Martin was down. OK, there wasn’t a Panda nearby, but even that sounds more plausible than the suggestion that Martin lost his wheel due to someone leaving a pen in the road. This left fans in Birmingham and Ireland cheering for ABV (anyone but Valverde). The juniors were spent, but Gerrans popped up to save the crowd (who were probably at least as lubricated as the Amstel lot) having to boo and hiss at Valverde.

An interesting aside (can’t remember who tweeted it) was that Gerrans didn’t win a thing in two years with Sky. This is possibly mischief making at the expense of both Orica and Sky, but VCSE would interpret the comment as a dig at Sky’s inabilty to make data mining work as strategy and tactics for a one day race. Sky fielded a reduced team at Fleche Wallone and didn’t have a single rider in the top 40 at LBL. Ian Stannard’s win in Het Nieuwsblad now confirmed as another false dawn for the team as far as the classics go (not withstanding strong rides from Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins in Flanders and Roubaix). Orica haven’t had the best of time in the classics this year, but of the two teams you suspect they will feel happier with their return of three monuments for Sky’s bust over the same period.

Tour of Turkey

A race that was really enjoyable last year and then marred by the revelations that GC winner Mustafa Sayer had doped his way to victory. The Torku squad had been dogged by doping issues the previous year as well and were apparently only invited to this years race by agreeing to have all of their riders tested every day (something like that anyway).

Adam Yates - Top prospect
Adam Yates – Top prospect

So the race is a couple of stages that feature summit finishes bookended by sprint stages. Mark Cavendish had turned up with pretty much an A team of lead out men including Petacchi, Renshaw and Steegmans. Andre Greipel was back again, albeit to act as some kind of sprinting Yoda to his Lotto teammates while he still recovers from his seperated shoulder injury. With Marcel Kittel missing as he preferred to ride in the rain in Yorkshire it looked like the sprint stages would be a Cavendish benefit.

It looked as if Cav had messed things up on stage one, but he popped up at the end to take the win, before winning straightforwardly on stage two. A further win after the queen stage to Elmali came Cav’s way before things came unstuck and he was beaten not once, but twice by Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. No disrespect to Viviani, but even he looked surprised to have beaten Cavendish who tweeted after his second loss that he had even managed to lose his Garmin. With the final stage, another sprint finish, still to come there’s the enticing possibilty of Viviani levelling the win tally at 3-3 assuming Cavendish doesn’t decide to reassert his authority. It’s not the easiest of finishes in Istanbul so Cav will need his train to keep him out of trouble if he’s to secure victory.

Perhaps of greater interest is Kittel going to Yorkshire. It’s a pretty pointed reference to Cavendish that he can’t expect any favours from Kittel if he’s going to take a yellow jersey this (or any other) year. Kittel is setting out his priorities really  clearly and there’s obviously a determination to unseat Cavendish from his ‘king of the sprinters’ throne. Cavendish is by no means busted as far as winning races is concerned but its beginning to look like a new generation is taking over where the really big races are concerned. Maybe the losses this week are down to looking over his shoulder at what the man who wants his crown is doing.

The other big story out of Turkey is Adam Yates. Capping a successful start to the week with Gerrans Orica have Yates in the leaders jersey in Turkey after a second in stage 3 and a win on Fridays stage to the summit finish at Selcuk. With only a sprint stage left Yates should be safe for the overall and this would represent a massive win for the British rider in his rookie year. He reminds VCSE of a Richie Porte or Joaquim Rodriguez is style and stature and he could prove to be a massive signing for Orica as far as GC ambitions go. After the teams strong showing at last years Tour it’s possible that we could see Yates targeting at least one of the stages for a win this year.

Tour de Romandie

Obviously we can’t watch this one so look for insight elsewhere! Chris Froome is a second down on Katusha’s Simon Spilak. It’s entirely possible that Froome will overhaul Spilak on tomorrrows final stage, but then again he might not. Sky’s preparation for domination at this years Tour is looking somewhat wonky so far and without an out and out leader for the Giro and the disdain with which they normally treat the Vuelta this could be a year where they actually don’t have to field US Postal style doping questions. OK, we’re ignoring Tiernan-Locke and Henao here, but you know what I mean!

The VCSE view is that anything that means we have a more animated Tour in 2014 is a good thing, whether that’s teams working out how to counter the Sky high tempo approach or stages over the Paris Roubaix route.

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.