VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

I posted my thoughts on the Cycling News Reader Poll last year so here’s this years submission. I haven’t posted anything since the end of the Vuelta for all sorts of different reasons so there might be an end of season review feel to this post as well (maybe!).

I haven’t written about every nominee as it does feel a bit like the Cycling News team went with ten nominees for the Best Male category and then wondered if there would be a bit of a Twitterstorm if they didn’t have the same number of nominees in the other categories. While some of the nominations feel like they have been added for the sake of it, there are other categories where I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment on whether or not a riders inclusion is warranted. Either way, there won’t be pages and pages on the Mountain Bike or Cyclocross categories.

So without fanfare or drum roll here’s my picks for the 2015.

Best Male Road Rider

So the normal suspects you would expect to see in an end of year poll are hear, alongside a couple of surprises. Lets deal with those first.

Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan

Richie Porte started the year in fantastic form winning Paris Nice for the second time amongst other things and generally looking like a better rider than Chris Froome during the early part of the year. Things began to unravel at the Giro and he began to resemble the rider who hadn’t exactly thrived when he was asked to pick up the team leadership from Froome in the 2014 Tour. Porte’s results post his return to racing after the Giro were less than spectacular and he even found himself slipping in his support role to best pal Froome at the Tour. If I was filling out Porte’s report card in April he would have got a A star but ahead of what is now (probably) a make or break move to BMC in 2016 he’s probably a C minus.

Another ‘What were they thinking?’ addition to the Best Male nomination is Mark Cavendish. Cav started the year under pressure to deliver results at Etixx and ended the year with a new team. While he isn’t the only sprinter to have had a less than stellar year (Marcel Kittel anyone?) it wasn’t perhaps the return to winning ways that everyone (the rider, his team, his fans) wanted. Sure Cav notched up another Tour stage win but he was completely outshone by a resurgent Andre Griepel in terms of number of wins and by the German’s victory on the most important stage of all in Paris. Cav of course remains a massive personality in the peloton and among UK fans but even the most diehard Cav supporter would find it hard to justify his selection as the best rider.

Another early starter was Alexander Kristoff. After Flanders I asked if anyone could stop him from winning any race he chose. Well as with so many predictions there was an element of hubris and Kristoff didn’t go on to win stages at the Tour for fun. In fact other than a low key win towards the end of the year it felt as if the Katusha rider had slipped from the radar screen completely.

Perhaps the sprinter who did the best job of retaining form over the whole season was John Degenkolb. With Marcel Kittel’s catastrophic loss of form Degenkolb became the key focus for his Giant Alpecin team in 2015. That Degenkolb took his first monument in Milan San Remo was perhaps less of a surprise than him taking his second a matter of weeks later in Paris Roubaix. Unlike his rivals Degenkolb was adaptable enough to still win grand tour bunch sprints including the final day around Madrid in the Vuelta. Degenkolb, once a target for Etixx as an eventual replacement for Tom Boonen the irony is that while the team retain the shampoo brand title sponsor it is Kittel who is leaving for the Belgian outfit.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Best Male poll without the Tour winner and sure enough Chris Froome is included. I’ll credit Froomey for not quite sticking to the script this year and looking pretty ordinary on the bike until the latter stages of the Dauphine. The way that he and his Sky teammates bossed the Tour from stage 2 onwards without too much there to unsettle them deserved better than the piss that was literally poured on them in France. There was a tilt a Vuelta Tour double but that was undone by another accident that may or may not have been bought on by bike handling skills. A second Tour win for the honorary Brit is no mean achievement but no better or worse than the other grand tour winners from this year.

And what of those two? Alberto Contador won the Giro pretty much singlehanded as his Tinkoff teammates struggled to keep pace with Astana. It was pretty clear how much this had taken out of him when he was the first of the big names to really suffer in the Tour. The Giro win didn’t taste quite as sweet while struggling to keep up with Froome and co in July and it’s no surprise that Contador wants to go out with a band in France next year. Fabio Aru was up and down like a yoyo on the Giro and then later during the Vuelta but showed enough to hold on to second place in Italy and then go one better in Spain. Perhaps not the most popular winner of the Vuelta thanks to his team and the manner of the win he looks increasingly like the favoured rider at Astana.

When the BBC crown their Sports Personality each year the debate afterwards often centres less on the winners sporting success as much as are they in fact a personality. When Bradley Wiggins won in 2012 both boxes could be firmly ticked as he rocked up in a wickedly tailored suit and was pissed before the broadcast had even finished. All of that plus Britain’s first ever Tour winner and an Olympic Gold medallist to (Chelsea) boot! Froome the following year wasn’t really in the running, despite Sky’s best efforts to add colour to him. Politeness doesn’t really ‘sell’. Peter Sagan started the year unable to win. I wondered if the pressure of his multi million dollar contract at Tinkoff was having an effect. A trip to the US for the Tour of California where they LOVE him provided the rejuvination and while there wasn’t a win at the Tour the green jersey was duly claimed. It was the end of season single handed win at the world championships that delivered the result that Oleg Tinkoff’s millions demanded but it was the return of Sagan’s sense of fun in post stage interviews at the Tour that cements him as my pick for Best Male rider of 2015.

Best Male Team

Fortunately Cycling News allow us a choice. Don’t fancy any of their nominee’s? Pick one of your own. And that’s what I have done with my Best Male Team selection.

MTN Qhubeka might not have been the winningest team of 2015. In fact they didn’t pick up masses of victories full stop, but it was the significance of what they achieved this year that makes them my pick for Best Male Team.

Bringing Brian Smith on board as General Manager saw the team step up a gear with a number of high profile signings and key changes in equipment to become one of the most distinctive outfits in the peloton. A stage win in the Tour and the Vuelta and Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the overall at the Tour of Britain were the arguably bigger wins than the KOM jersey at the Dauphine but more importantly that was won by a black African rider: Daniel Teklehaimanot. Smith has the challenge of continuing to get the best out of an ageing team of ‘big’ names like new addition Cavendish and promoting the best of the African riders. If he can do this it could be one of the most important components of cycling becoming a more diverse and genuinely global sport.

Best Female Road Rider

Lizzie Armitstead. No contest really. It might be a little bit churlish to say that Marianne Vos being injured for most of the season gave Lizzie a clear run but that would be pretty disrespectful to a talented core of riders within the women’s pro peloton just as much as it would be disrespectful to Lizzie.

Winning the world cup for the second year in a row demonstrated her form over the course of the season and the world championships was the icing on the cake. More importantly the way that she rode the race in 2015 showed that she had learnt the lessons of 2014 and didn’t let a winning position slip. The pressure will be on now (not least from a tendency to big up GB medal hopes by lazy journo’s) for a gold medal in the Olympic road race in Rio next year. The course doesn’t suit her but if anyone has the mental ability to overcome that it’s Lizzie Armitsead.

Best Women’s Team

Boels Dolmans might seem like the obvious choice. They’re Lizzie Armitstead’s team as well as the berth for riders like Evelyn Stevens. But my pick for Best Women’s team would be Velocio SRAM. The team emerged from the remains of the Specialized Lululemon squad that announced it was folding at the end of the 2014 season. Initally crowd funded the team were ultimately received backing from Cervelo and SRAM for the 2015 season. For various reasons the team in this incarnation is no more and the riders had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a team for next year while there was still part of this year’s races to complete. It says a lot about this group of riders that they were still one of the winningest teams in the women’s peloton in 2015 and rounded off the season with the TTT world championship.

Keep reading for the rest of the VCSE winners here

Continue reading VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

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)

Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “ better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

Continue reading Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Tour de France week 2 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #33

Nibali running out of rivals

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its first rest day speculation turned to who would be the next rider to bring a challenge to Vincenzo Nibali’s reclaimed race lead. Nibali had handed off the yellow jersey that he had claimed with his stage 2 victory in Sheffield to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin for a whole day before he took it back with an emphatic win atop the La Planche de Belle Filles.

Can he overtake Nibali? - Alejandro Valverde
Can he overtake Nibali? – Alejandro Valverde

Alberto Contador’s exit, like that of Chris Froome beforehand, had removed the Tour of its pre-race favourites and potentially leaves this years edition in search of a narrative beyond a seemingly locked on Nibali overall victory in Paris on Sunday. Sky touted Richie Porte as their new team leader, but this was a rider who had seemed out of sorts ever since he was switched from a defence of his 2013 Paris Nice title. That decision was an early indicator that Sky would be backing a solitary horse this season in Froome, although Porte was unfortunate to miss a further opportunity to lead when he missed the Giro through illness. Dave Brailsford has a reputation as a straight talker, however it’s hard to see that continue if he suggests that a rider is “..climbing better than ever” and said rider (Porte) folds on the first day of alpine climbing. The Tasmanian looked as if he knew he was a folorn hope as he was the first of the depeleted GC contenders to loose the wheel on the stage to Chamrousse.

Porte fell from second place to sixteenth and with more than ten minutes lost to Nibali conceded that he wouldn’t be a factor in this years race any longer leaving Sky looking for a plan C. As Nibali took his third stage win the GC shake up saw Alejandro Valverde move into second place and three French riders in the top ten. Valverde still occupies second place and perhaps more in search of story than a basis in reality it’s been suggested that he will challenge Nibali in the Pyrenees. With one Pyrenean stage down Nibali the Movistar attack has looked toothless so far. It’s certainly true that Nibali’s Astana teammates are seen as the chink in his otherwise impressive armour, but the truth is they haven’t performed any better or worse than domestiques on the other squads. Valverde had supporters in hand as the peloton climbed the Porte de Bales while Nibali had none, but by the time the latter crested the summit Valverde had been dropped. The two were back together at the finish, won in fine style from the break by Mick Rogers, but the chance for Valverde to take back some seconds had been missed.

Another rider leaving the Tour in the Alps was Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. The American had suffered a number of crashes including a spectacular coming together with Simon Gerrans at the finish of stage 7. In pain ahead of stage 11 Talansky was unable to make it back into the peloton and at one point was being gapped further by his teammates drilling the pack on the front. He made the time cut, just, after a period sat on the roadside where he either begged to continue or was persuaded to carry on. The truth of that isn’t clear, but if Talansky ever does a biography there’s a chapter that could write itself. He finished the stage, but was gone the next day.

Yesterday’s stage saw a twist to the developing story of the French GC challenge. AG2R have two riders in the top ten at opposite ends of the age scale. Leading the young riders classification at the start of the day was Roman Bardet and he was in the last of the podium places also. His teammate Jean Christophe Peraud was in sixth place, but post stage moved to fourth. It hasn’t always been clear who is leading the team, perhaps the plan was to see who could rise to the challenge across a three week grand tour. Peraud had been very unlucky last year with crashes and broken bones. His stated aim is to finish on the podium in Paris, but that is the goal of the younger rider too. The chances are that this particular story has a few more changes of direction in it yet, but Peraud is the stronger time trial rider and he could end up heading the two.

It’s perhaps less clear if there will be an AG2R rider on the podium. Bardet lost third place and the young riders jersey to FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot yesterday.The story of his descending travails have been repeated ad infinitum this year, but it was his climbing that did for Bardet yesterday. It would be interesting to know if Pinot’s motivation for attacking on the climb to Port des Bales yesterday was too gap Bardet or to build an advantage on the descent against riders (like Bardet) who are still stronger going downhill. Perhaps it was both? Outside of the Nibali / Valverde contest, it’s the battle for supremacy among the French riders that creates the most interest.

While the VCSE predictions have been pretty poor this year with neck stuck firmly out it’s got to be a Nibali win on Sunday. You have to suspect that Valverde will be happy with second and he has the teammates to protect his second place over the last of the mountain stages before his superior time trial ability will cement the position in place for Paris. Of the French riders it’s less clear. It seems likely that there will be a Frenchman on the podium in 2014,it’s just a question of who. There might yet be another reversal of fortune if Tejay Van Garderen can take back some time today and tomorrow, but that seems like a long shot. A repeat of his 2012 fifth place seems the best to hope for.

 Best of the Plan B’s

Tinkoff Saxo have given an indicator of just how strong they would have been in support of Alberto Contador with two stage wins since his withdrawal on stage 10. Mick Rogers win yesterday was proceeded by a victory for Rafal Majka on stage 14. Both of the wins have come from breaks, but the crucial thing is that the Tinkoff riders have beens strong enough to stay away. In contrast Sky have struggled to really be a factor since the demise of Froome and Porte. Garmin had Jack Bauer come within metres of a stage win on Sunday after another long break that had echoes of Tony Martin’s glorius failure at last years Vuelta.

AG2R lead the teams classement built on the platform of Bardet’s and Peraud’s high placings, but perhaps the team that’s managed a high profile through improvising results this year is Lotto. Andre Greipel has taken a stage win, but Tony Gallopin’s day in yellow was followed by the same rider taking a stage win. Another rider having a good Tour is Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff who now has two stage win’s under his belt from the lumpier stages. Marcel Kittel has struggled with the climbs, but will no doubt come good for the main event in Paris on Sunday. Greipel should be in second, but Kristoff is in the form of his life and may scramble to the next best title after Kittel.

The final week 

Two more stages in the Pyrenee’s including the iconic climbs of the Peyresourde, Tourmalet and Hautacam should provide some interesting viewing. Expect Europcar to get into the breaks as the team don’t have anything to show for the race so far in their first year on the world tour. VCSE predicts a breakaway win for both stages as Nibali will probably have his hands full covering Valverde. Movistar may yet go for it on the Hautacam stage tomorrow, but it feels more likely that Valverde will want to be conservative and protect his second place.

This years race has been full of surprises though and none the worse for it. It feels like it could only be misfortune that could rob Nibali of his first Tour de France win and that would make him one of a select band to have won all three grand tours. The excitement is likely to come from the French GC battle and the final day’s fireworks on the Champs Elysee.

Tour de France 2014 week 1 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Froome out, Nibali in yellow

The biggest story of the week had to be Chris Froome’s abandon on the ‘Paris Roubaix’ stage on Wednesday. Froome had crashed heavily the previous day as the Tour returned to home shores. Running at the front on what should have been a comparatively easy day for the GC contenders,  Froome touched a wheel and was down. The crash seemed fairly innocuous at the time; hardly anyone else was effected and Froome sprang up pretty quickly to get back on his bike. He spent a lot of time with the on course doctor however and there was speculation that he might have fractured his wrist. Although this was dispelled by the team following x-rays it was subsequently revealed on Friday long after his exit that he had in fact sustained two fractures (revealed by an MRI scan).

Can I win the Tour? - Vincenzo Nibali
Can I win the Tour? – Vincenzo Nibali

The chances are that Froome would have wanted to start the next day whether he was in acute pain or not. As much as he (and to be fair Sky) has lost support in some sections as a result of Bradley Wiggins non selection for this years race, Froome was undoubtably extremely motivated to defend his title. He had already shown his appetite by his performances during the opening two stages and the look on his face when he shook his head in response to the mechanic who asked if he could continue after his second crash on stage 5 spoke volumes. Sky pretty much admitted that they had their concerns about Froome when they committed some of the squad to protect Richie Porte, their ‘Plan B’, during the stage and the teams efforts looked divided from the moment that the erstwhile leader had his first crash of the day.

While a number of riders, both in and out of this years race, team managers and other interested observers opined that cobbles had no place on the Tour, the facts are that only one rider abandoned on stage 5; Froome. Sections of the Paris Roubaix course have been included in previous Tours but this stage had the misfortune to be run in pretty awful weather, unlike the last few years of the actual race that has enjoyed dry and sunny conditions in April. With the unexpectedly huge crowds that lined the route in the UK causing a few spills combined with the slippery nature of the weather effected stages since the race has returned to France this years Tour has had its fair share of abandons and retains quite a few walking (or should that be riding?) wounded.

While Chris Froome faltered Vincenzo Nibali has prospered. The Astana rider enjoyed almost the polar opposite of fortunes on stage 5 finishing 3rd on the stage and pulling out over a minutes lead on his nearest GC rival. The easy assumption when the route of this years Tour was announced was that the GC contenders would view stage 5 as one to be endured and hopefully completed without too many mishaps. There wasn’t a slew of articles trumpeting Nibali (or anyone else) as the GC rider most likely to do something on the stage. The cliche that Nibali is a ‘great descender’ is almost a bit of a joke these days, but like a number of riders in the peloton, he is an ex mountain biker and on that basis is less fazed by sketchy conditions. After springing a surprise to take stage 2 in Sheffield (what were the odds for that one?) it almost feels as if Nibali has taken advantage of the fact that no one really tapped him as a serious contender for this years race. His first win this year had been just a week before the Tour at the Italian nationals, but in seven stages of the Tour he has taken the Maillot Jaune, a stage win and a podium.

Contador’s confusion

The question of whether of not Nibali can hold onto the lead is not quite as clear writing this ahead of the first stage (8) that involves some serious climbing. Wrapping up the opening stages we suggested that Nibali could hold on to the jersey if he didn’t suffer any mishaps on stage 5 (done!). However, we further speculated whether Nibali’s stage 2 win was just a bit of opportunism, scraps from the table of the forthcoming Froome / Contador match up. The next three days in the Vosges should provide some if not all of the answers as to if this is a serious tilt at the GC by Nibali. He has looked good so far, but to win the race from stage 2, to hold the lead for that length of time, is something that hasn’t been done since 1961 with Jacques Anquetil.

Alberto Contador appears to be a man in confusion at the moment. He started the Tour with the strategy he had employed during the Dauphine; marking Froome. Now that Froome is absent, Contador seems bereft of ideas, thrown by the prospect of combating a rider with a completely different riding style. Contador had a torrid time of the cobbles too, losing nearly 3 minutes to Nibali. Although Contador has lost a key domestique (to concussion on stage 6) riders like Nico Roche and Mick Rogers are in great form and it’s going to be really interesting to see how the two teams Astana and Tinkoff Saxo and their respective team leaders trade punches over the next few days. When you examine the facts, Contador has enjoyed a fantastic year so far and Tinkoff look like a very well drilled outfit. Nibali and Astana in comparison have had a tough time and the team have been rife with bitching between the Italian and Kazakh components. The sense is that Contador needs to get his head right as Nibali may just have rediscovered his will to win.

Sagan consistent but winless

Quote of the day was from the rider missing from this years race who speculated if Peter Sagan was “..receiving instructions over his team radio or just Metallica at full blast”. Sagan has been there or there abouts on every stage so far and it’s pretty hard to see anyone else claiming the points jersey from him. A third win in this competition in as many years is obviously some achievement, but the stage win tally is falling. Missing out on the victory by inches yesterday hurt much more than the placings gained while sprinting against Marcel Kittel.  Sagan will continue to have a go, but he’s another rider who looks a little short on confidence at the moment despite the jersey he’s wearing.

Marcel Kittel enters every sprint stage knowing that they are his to lose. Mark Cavendish’s accident and subsequent abandonment of this years Tour has denied the Giant Shimano rider of his most potent competitor. VCSE’s view is the in the bare knuckle environment of the last kilometre of a bunch sprint Kittel currently is just about impossible to beat and for all the work Cavendish has done this year to counter the Kittel threat, he has been undone himself by riders that a year or two ago would have been in his wheel tracks.

Kittel can be beaten.  Andre Greipel won his obligatory stage win the day before yesterday after Kittel and his teammates had been exhausted by the cross winds that effected stage 6. Similarly Kittel wasn’t always a feature in last years race for the same reasons. For him though, he has already achieved the first part of the important Tour double; yellow after stage one. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that he will fail in his quest for the second; a consecutive victory on the Champs Elysee.

VCSE’s 2014 Tour de France preview

General Classification 

This time a year ago the talk was not so much of who would win the Tour but the margin of victory. With the exception of Tirreno Adriatico Chris Froome had been victorious in everything he had entered and he was the firm favourite ahead of the opening stages in Corsica. This year the pre-race chatter has been dominated by the will they, won’t they (non) selection of Bradley Wiggins for Sky’s Tour team.

In yellow again this year? - Alberto Contador
In yellow again this year? – Alberto Contador

In some ways this has been a welcome distraction for Froome as his season to date has been punctuated by injury, illness and being found wanting by some of his chief rivals for the GC this year, most recently Alberto Contador in the Criterium du Dauphine. As defending champion and undisputed leader of the Sky team Froome is of course among the favourites for the 101st edition of the Tour. The key here is that he is merely among the favourites, rather than being the outstanding candidate to take the general classification. Sky’s domination of the race in recent years does allow this rivals to remain somewhere below the radar however. Contador, who gave the impression of a rider clinging on by his fingernails in last years race has looked back to his best this year, showing his best form when he has wanted to demonstrate his superiority of a rival like he did to Alejandro Valverde at this years Pais Vasco.

Contador looks most likely to break the Sky hold over the GC, but there are other riders waiting in the wings who may yet cause an upset on the way. The aforementioned Valverde has looked other worldly at times, particularly in the early season. It’s hard to imagine that the Spaniard will be any more than a podium contender though. If Movistar had wanted to win this year they should have picked Nairo Quintana, last years runner up and this years Giro victor. Last years Giro winner Vicenzo Nibali should arguably have been the man cast in Contador’s role this year. Utterly dominant in the 2013 Giro and Tirreno Adriatico (where he crucially had the beating of Froome) Nibali began to fray around the edges at the Vuelta and he hasn’t looked anywhere near his 2013 best this season. Nibali was often a thorn in Sky’s side at the 2012 Tour though and he has the ability to hurt the GC riders in the mountain stages.  A podium is a possibility, but VCSE suspects that a stage win or two may prove to be the goal for the Astana leader.

In Quintana’s absence the young guns should be well represented by US pairing Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky. BMC struggled last year trying to accomodate two leaders in Cadel Evans and van Garderen. Evans’ absence this year should help Tejay but he would have to be an outside bet for a podium place. A top ten is more likely. Talansky’s Garmin team have demonstrated their mastery of in race tactics, particularly when targeting a stage win as with Dan Martin in the Pyrenees last year. Talansky was in the right place at the right time in the Dauphine when he stole the race lead from Contador on the last stage to win the overall. He’s a stronger candidate for the podium than van Garderen but once again a top 10 feels more likely. This is Talansky’s opportunity to improve on his result from last years Tour and to become the rider around who future Garmin Tour efforts are built now that Martin’s year has been disrupted by injury.

Aside of the main contenders Joaquim Rodriguez was a fairly late addition for the Tour after his plans for the Giro were upset by injury in the Ardennes. Rodriguez took a stealthy podium last year but it’s harder to see him repeating that result 12 months later. Belkin, in the form of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam were a bit of surprise package last year. The Dutch outfit have the motivation (if not pressure) of the announcement that their team sponsor are withdrawing at the end of this season and Mollema has looked in good form in recent weeks. Again it’s an unlikely podium, but with the teams sponsor difficulties a headline grabbing stage win could be the target for the either rider.

World champion Rui Costa was successful with stage wins last year but his goal this year will be a stronger showing on GC. He’s managed a win in the rainbow stripes this season which deals with any superstitious fears that may have existed for the rider about the supposed ‘curse’ but it’s unlikely he will be looking to repeat wins in 2014. France demands at least one stage win in the race it gave to the world. Last year we had a long wait for Christophe Riblon to come good for AG2R. VCSE offers the following names to look out for at this years Tour for GC contention and / or a stage win; Roman Bardet (AG2R) and  Kevin Reza (Europcar).

With the loss of Vacansoleil and the elevation of Europcar to the world tour it’s meant that we have a bit more variety in the wildcard invitations this year. Anglo-German Net App Endura have a decent shout of a top 10 with Leopold Konig after the teams ‘dry run’ at last years Vuelta. IAM cycling were in contention for the overall at the Tour de Suisse and will bring a strong squad to the Tour with previous stage winners in Chavanel and Haussler. Stage wins may well be the target for the team, but they have riders that could prove to be contenders on GC also.

So who will actually win? Putting aside the fact the Froome is hard to like because of the Wiggins non-selection he remains the rider most likely to win this years Tour, albeit with more caveats than last year. Contador looks super strong and if Valverde and Nibali both bring their A game the Sky rider will face more assaults than he did a year ago. Also Froome’s most trusted helper Richie Porte is struggling for form and it remains to be seen if Mikel Nieve can establish a similar bond with his leader. Sky have assembled a very experienced unit with a good mix of riders who can shepherd Froome through the tricky stages like Arenberg as well as the type of stage that saw him cut adrift by cross winds last year. This is Contador’s best chance of a repeat Tour victory, but he has lost a key helper in Roman Kreuziger due to bio passport irregularities just days ahead of the grand depart. Will this upset the Tinkoff Saxo applecart? Unlikely, but anything that chips away at Contador’s confidence will be to Froome’s benefit. Every GC rider faces the difficult stages in Yorkshire and on the Roubaix cobbles and this could lead to some riders going out of contention before the peloton reaches the Vosges for the start of the climbing proper.

VCSE’s GC predictions – 1. Froome 2. Contador 3. Talansky

The sprinters battle 

Mark Cavendish will have another go at claiming the maillot jaune for the first time in his career. Cavendish could place some of the blame for missing out on yellow on last years first stage on the Orica team bus getting stuck at the finish line, but as the race went on it became clear that he’s no longer the man to beat in sprint stages. Marcel Kittel may have ‘stolen’ Cav’s jersey on that first stage in Corsica but by beating the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider in Paris it looked as if the crown and sceptre for the king of the fast men was going to the younger man. Even if Cavendish wasn’t targeting the win into his Mum’s home town of Harrogate on Saturday he can rely on a partisan UK crowd and the media to make it ‘his’ goal. In some ways there’s more pressure on Cavendish to win this stage than their will be to beat Kittel on the Champs Elysee in three weeks time. Both riders have reconnoitered the opening stages and while Kittel may respect his rival he won’t be sentimental about handing the win to Cavendish. Much as VCSE would like to see Cavendish take yellow it seems more likely that Kittel will take the lions share of the stage wins and will lead the GC into the second stage.

Can he wear yellow?  - Mark Cavendish
Can he wear yellow? – Mark Cavendish

Peter Sagan only managed a single stage victory at last years Tour but should see a third straight win in the points competition. Sagan could target a victory as early as stage 2 which has been described as a Yorkshire version of Liege Bastogne Liege. He will also be among the favourites for the stage that takes in part of the Paris Roubaix cobbled route on stage 5. Sagan could have a rival this year in Orica’s Simon Gerrans, a rider in good form who while unable to match Sagan in a sprint is as least as good if not better over the climbs.

Andre Greipel is reduced to playing second, if not third fiddle to Cavendish and Kittel these days and will need some kind of mishap to befall the leading riders to be in with a chance of stage win at this years Tour. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare has won the internal battle to become lead rider and could be another outside bet for a win, but is more likely to contest stage podiums.

KOM is harder to predict this year. It’s possible that we might see a repeat of 2012 where the rider in the break secures the points and the jersey and this seems more likely than a repeat of last year where Quintana took a sweep of the KOM and young riders jerseys on his way to second place.

Key stages of the 2014 Tour de France 

Armchair fans can watch the race live on ITV4 and British Eurosport again this year. Who you choose may depend on your choice of television provider but it’s a shame that Eurosport won’t repeat their pairing of Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly like they did at the Giro. Hatch seemed to get the best out of Kelly and their commentary is preferable to the prospect of Carlton Kirby in the lead chair. Kirby is as eccentric as Phil Liggett is predictable but ITV4 will probably win out thanks to a stronger presentation team in Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman outweighing Liggetts spoonerisms.

With a UK grand depart it’s also a lot easier to go and see the race in person although the peloton will disappear in a bit of flash on the flat stage 3 into London. The fan parks in Yorkshire and London may be better places to watch the action before heading to the finish line to see the final sprints.

Stages 1 thru’ 3 – Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, Cambridge to London Sat, Sun, Mon 5,6,7th July

The UK based stages will be worth a watch to see if Mark Cavendish can claim his first ever yellow jersey on stage 1 and to see if there are any early GC casualties on the challenging stage 2 that has 9 catergorised climbs.

Stage 5 – Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut Weds 9th July 

The stage that takes in 15 kilometres of the Paris Roubaix cobbles is otherwise a flat, transitional stage. GC riders will be looking to stay out of trouble and it’s likely to be a chance for the rouleurs from each team to grab some glory with a stage win.

Stage 10 – Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles Mon 14th July

The summit finish where Froome won the stage in 2012 and Wiggins took the maillot jaune revisits in 2014 after a testing stage the previous day where the Tour takes in the first cat 1 climb of the race and the highest peak in the Vosges the Grand Ballon. Stage 10 has three other cat 1 climbs besides the Belle Filles along with a pair of cat 2 and a single cat 3 climb over its 162kms.

Stage 14 – Grenoble to Risoul Sat 19th July 

The toughest day the peloton will face in the Alps this year. The stage includes the Col d’Izoard one of the most iconic climbs that the Tour uses and home to some of its most dramatic scenery. The stage has a cat 1 summit finish at Risoul

Stage 17 – St Gaudens to St Lary Pla D’Adet Weds 23rd July

Three cat 1 climbs including the Peyresourde before finishing with a HC summit finish of just over 10km at slightly more than 8%. It’s the shortest stage outside of the TT stages but should be a tough one.

Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam Thurs 24th July

The final day of climbing in this years Tour takes in the famed climbs of the Tourmalet and finishing atop the Hautacam. Both climbs are HC and account for roughly 20% of the stages entire distance. If the GC isn’t decided by now it’s still possible that the TT  on Saturday could provide a final shake up.

Stage 19 – Bergerac to Perigueux Sat 26th July 

The penultimate stage has the potential to be a TT that’s actually worth watching live or merely be the icing on the GC cake for the holder of the maillot jaune. If there are still small time gaps between the leading contenders then riders will be looking over the shoulders as the strong testers take back time on them. If Froome is leading at this point, this stage is likely to increase the gap. If it’s Contador he will have to hope that he has built up enough of a cushion in the Pyrenees.


VCSE’s 2013 Tour de France Preview

VCSE’s guide to the Col d’Izoard


2014 Tour de France route
2014 Tour de France route


TUE be or not TUE be.. – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

Just as night follows day the winning the Dauphine has become part of the landscape for Sky on their way to winning the Tour a few weeks later. In 2012 it was Bradley Wiggins and a year later Chris Froome. For Froome victory would have been a strong indication of his form ahead of his July target, his race programme for 2014 had been extremely low key so far, although both times he had raced he had won the GC (Oman and Romandie). Backed by a team of domestiques deluxe who would make anyone’s Tour team Froome would be facing off against some of his key rivals for the yellow jersey when the Tour gets underway in Yorkshire and a few pretenders who would be troubling the top ten. Alberto Contador was looking back to his best form of 18 months ago when he captured the Vuelta and Vicenzo Nibali, who while not enjoying the same kind of results would be seen as threat to the Sky rider.

"Your name's not down, you're not coming in" Wiggins and Froome
“Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” Wiggins and Froome

Froome has a teflon like ability to rise above the ‘noise’ that follows the Tour de France champion although he could not avoid the fact that he was a big part of the story ahead of the race. Following the serialisation of his book in the Sunday Times (ghost written by ST journalist David Walsh) which had cherry picked the chapters that focused on the Froome / Wiggins ‘relationship’ (and lack there of), Wiggins had popped up on radio and TV to announce that he wouldn’t be riding the Tour. In itself this was a juicy narrative for the rotters of the press and social media to get stuck into (VCSE pleads guilty; see the previous post). The will he, won’t he selection of Wiggins for the Sky Tour roster was merely an apertif though. First, we had Froome looking vulnerable and falling out of the GC lead he had establish in the stage 1 prologue and then we had a rather messy spat between sections of the (French) press and Sky over a TUE.

For the casual follower of the sport a TUE can be explained as a ‘sick note’ that excuses the rider for using a banned substance if it is necessary to treat a particular condition. So far, so reasonable but TUE’s have a very murky past. It was a false and post dated TUE that Lance Armstrong used to explain the prescence of cortisoids in the ’99 Tour. Ironically and certainly unfortunately for Froome it was the same variety of banned substance that got him into hot water at the Dauphine.

After crossing the line ahead of Contador on stage 2 Froome was given an inhaler. No attempt was made to conceal its use and this is an important point. Sky handled the following furore with the typical cack handedness they display when the aren’t in control of the story (or indeed a race) and this certainly didn’t help the situation. Over the course of the week it emerged that Froome had previously stated he didn’t suffer from asthma, the reason given for the use of the inhaler and some commentators took things off on a tangent suggesting that Sky and their rider were somehow being ‘protected’ by the UCI. Perhaps the most damming criticism came from Walsh who had spent the previous year embedded with the team as well as writing the Froome tome. Walsh felt that Sky were backtracking significantly from the standards they had set for themselves at the team’s inception, that they wouldn’t race a rider that needed a TUE.

Things are so toxic because of Armstrong and the TUE use cannot help but remind people of cycling’s dark recent past. Sky’s whole reason for existence stems from a desire to race and win clean and the story of Froome’s inhaler shouldn’t be seen as history repeating. Much of the reason for this is what subsequently happened at the Dauphine. Over the final two stages of the race Froome lost his place and the leaders yellow jersey to Contador on Saturday and on the final day fell out of the top ten altogether.

Contador, point proven perhaps, lost the lead himself on stage 8 to Garmin’s Andrew Talansky an emotional victor hinting that Garmin may seek to do more than just go for stage wins at the Tour. Besides the collapse of their team leader Sky have a further headache in the loss of form that Richie Porte is going through. Porte has suffered a string of bad luck and non finishes since switching from Paris Nice to Tirreno Adriatico early on in the season. He will go to the Tour but it seems more likely that Froome will be reliant on Euskatel Mikel Nieve as his last man standing. Whether or not Froome will click with Nieve the way he does with Porte remains to be seen and Sky’s jangling nerves won’t have been soothed by Contador’s results with what was pretty much a Tinkoff Saxo B team supporting him.

Another rider dusting himself off after a poor week was Nibali who didn’t look like troubling the podium from the prologue onwards. There are a lot of noises off around Astana at the moment with Nibali and the Italian contingent seemingly at odds with the Kazakh management. It maybe too early for a parting of the ways, but it will take some of the bloody mindedness that Nibali displayed at the 2012 Tour in the face of Sky dominance for him to deliver another podium place in July.

Another young rider emerging with credit was Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman. With Belkin announcing that they are leaving the sport less than a year after coming Kelderman’s fourth place could prove timely. The team may yet survive as bike supplier Bianchi are keen to remain, but this will dependent on finding a title sponsor and results so far this year have been patchy at best. Orica’s Adam Yates delivered another strong finish in sixth, but will probably find himself squeezed into the top 20 or so, assuming the Aussies select him for the Tour. It’s possible they might be teeing up Simon Gerrans for a tilt at the points jersey if he can get over the climbs better than Peter Sagan this year and the Cannondale rider is squeezed out of the sprints by the three way battle between Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel.

Tour de Suisse 2014

The question for fans of Britain’s cycling knight ahead of the Tour de Suisse was would Bradley Wiggins use the race as an opportunity to stick a metaphorical finger up at Team Sky’s management in general and Chris Froome and Dave Brailsford in particular. Having announced that as far as he was concerned that he wouldn’t be part of Froome’s back up at the Tour a win in Switzerland seemed like the perfect risposte to the apparent snub delivered to the 2012 Tour de France winner. That Wiggins chose not to get on the pace, finishing more than 30 seconds down on the opening stage prologue, before losing more time on the subsequent stage and withdrawing from the race early is typical, although not for the reasons some would think.

Wiggins is goal driven and after riding Paris Roubaix and winning the Tour of California his stated aim was ride (in support of Froome) at the Tour. Having summised that he would be surplus to requirements in July Wiggins would not have felt the motivation to demonstrate his form in Switzerland while Froome rode in the Dauphine. The difference between the driven, target in mind Wiggins and the rider whose heart just isn’t in it is palpable and Wiggins was probably grateful in some strange way that the accident he was caught up in while loitering at the back of the peloton provided a platform for him to bow out early.

Some might say that Wiggins was doing the equivlent of taking his ball and going home and there is perhaps something in this. Now it’s clear that Wiggins never wanted to race the Giro last year it does go some way to explain his poor results and showing in the run up to that race. Wiggins may have felt that he deserved inclusion in the Tour team based on (delete as applicable) being a previous Tour winner and with the race starting in Yorkshire, but this ignores the fact that he merits inclusion based on form alone if you look at how he dominated the Tour of California.

The leader for much of the week was Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin who managed to hold on to the leaders jersey right up until the closing kilometres of the final stage. Martin had clung on through two mountain stages without much in the way of riders to support him; OPQS using the race to drill the Cavendish lead out train further ahead of the Tour. Martin took the lead after winning the prologue and cemented things further later in the week with victory in the TT also. He was eventually undone by world champion Rui Costa who is enjoying a better year than his predecessor in the rainbow stripes Philippe Gilbert.

Martin, lacking support, was powerless to stop a large break going away on the final stage that included Costa and he was able to distance his remaining companions in the break to claim victory over Belkin’s Bauke Mollema and IAM’s Mathias Frank who made out the overall podium as well.

With the Tour starting a week on Monday there’s a bit of a hiatus as the teams announce their shortlists and in some cases actual Tour line ups. We’re still waiting for the final Sky group but it seems likely that Wiggins won’t be a part of it with the rider announced as part of the England team for the Commenwealth Games. The party line remains that Wiggins will only be confirmed in terms of actual events if and when he isn’t selected for the Tour by Sky, but with the resurfacing of the fissure between him and Froome and the TUE controversy it seems more likely that Dave Brailsford will not wish to unsettle Froome further by including Wiggins in the squad.

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

Tour or California 2014 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.