Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*. Ahead of last season I wrote about pro cycling’s latest wheeze to evolve with the advent of Velon. I was vary of a potential shift of power towards teams at the time, making the comparison between the changes seen in Football in the UK since the inception of the Premier League. It seems like I needn’t have worried. All we have seen from Velon is some occasionally interesting Go Pro (other bike cams are available) footage and the financial footing of teams seems as precarious as it ever was.
Some changes were proposed. Under Brian Cookson the UCI has pursued a low key reforming agenda that was inevitable after the fall out from the the scandals of recent years. Whether or not the sport needs 3 year licences for teams is debatable. The stability argument, that teams could reassure existing and potential sponsors that they would be racing at Tirreno Adriatico in 2018 is reasonable enough but it exposed where the power in the sport lies. ASO promotes many other races besides the Tour but if you’re an incoming title sponsor of a world tour team the one race you’re going to want to be seen at is La Grand Boucle. For a non world tour team securing an invite to a grand tour is often the difference between financial survival or ruin. There’s also been the unwritten rule that certain teams could expect an invite at the expense of potentially more worthy entrants pace Cofidis at the Tour or Androni at the Giro.
Securing the patronage of ASO (or RCS) has always been important for the outfits below the world tour level. With world tour teams guaranteed a slot on each of the world tours thus far falling out with the organiser hasn’t been a consideration up and until now. Crucially though ASO are unhappy with the UCI proposals, so much so that they want to take their races out of UCI categorisation. This puts a huge hole in the UCI’s 3 year licencing plan as suddenly the stability it suggested is overtaken by the need to stay onside with ASO to be at the grand depart of the world’s biggest cycle race.
Whether or not 3 year licences are the answer to how pro cycling can move forward is moot now that ASO have decided that as far they’re concerned; it’s a no. The impasse has somewhat faded as the new season is upon us (I’m writing this after the Tour Down Under and the day before the Dubai Tour). My guess at this stage is that a compromise or fudge will be found and I’ll be writing a similar article about the sport’s potential new dawn sometime next February.
Moves and Grooves
In the off season it has been evolution rather than revolution for most teams that echoes the uncertainty of the direction of travel discussed earlier. There are a few exceptions of course.
Dimension Data (ex MTN Qhubeka) are the latest addition to the world tour teams having secured the services of Mark Cavendish (along with a couple of his consigliere for 2016. Moving up from Pro Conti removes the lottery of securing grand tour invitations (for now) but while the team will benefit from the stability there’s pressure too for the squad and the rider. Cav had a less than stellar 2015 and as the undisputed leader of his new team will be under the spotlight this year. Sprinting has come a long way since Cav, Eisel and Renshaw were casting all before them at HTC in 2009 and with the possibility that he will want to go to the Rio Olympics too I’m not sure Cav will be able to target the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee too.
The make up of Sky’s squad continues to evolve although the number of Brit’s in the team remains the same with Bradley Wiggins replaced by neo pro Alex Peters. Their big signings are former world champ Michael Kwiatkowski from Etixx and Mikel Landa from Astana. Kwiatkowski had a quiet year as befits the holder of the rainbow stripes but he’s got pedigree and versatility. Whether or not the team needs another rider in the Geraint Thomas mould I’m less sure of but it should allow the team to fight for more wins this year. Signing Landa i’m less sure of. The suggestion is that he will target the Giro after going close last year but I can’t help feeling this could go the way of Sky’s previous attempts to win the race. It’s a bold step to take a rider from a team that’s as controversial as Astana, even more so if you’re Sky. It’s uncertain that Landa will ride at the Tour but I would imagine that the tin foil hat brigade will be out in force if he does.
Etixx have lost Cavendish but gained Marcel Kittel alongside a few more ‘big’ signings. Seeing Kittel fall from grace in 2015 was painful at times and not ever entirely explained by the rider either. Will he go well in 2016 is as much of a question as; is Etixx the right team for him to prosper with? Other than having deep pockets are Etixx likely to be significantly better at leading out Kittel as they were Cavendish?
Richie Porte has moved to BMC, although this was announced so early in the ‘transfer window’ it’s ceased to be news. Everything went well for him right up to being Sky’s latest contender for the Giro and after that he was forced to dine out on what might have been. Here’s another move where I’m not sure if the ‘fit’ is anything other than financial and perhaps this further illustrates the fragile nature of a professional riders career. Sacrifice opportunity for cash? I might be doing Richie a huge disservice here but don’t BMC already have a GC rider?
This year will be the last match up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Well I say that, but actually the last time that truly happened was as long ago as 2012. Boonen has had less luck with injuries, but both riders were out of contention long before the big two of Flanders and Paris Roubaix last year. Everyone wants to see these two go head to head one more time but the emergence of riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb (last years winners of the Ronde and Roubaix respectively) will mean that the last of the old breed will need to be in top form and fitness to add to their wins.
What to watch
Well, all of them of course! OK that’s not strictly true and I admit to feeling a little jaded watching some of the cycling last year. The desert races will be an amuse bouche after not seeing anything since September but the season doesn’t really start for me until Paris Nice and Tirreno. Strade Bianche is emerging as a genuine classic and I’ll have high hopes that one of the semi-classics delivers a race as good as last years Gent Wevelgem.
The Ronde is the first of the must see races for me and still edges it over Roubaix. If Cancellara and Boonen are near the front at either it will be a good year.
The grand tours have a way of feeling like the greatest race you have ever seen when you’re in the thick of the actual race. I’ll be left wondering how the Tour is going to be able to top the Giro, although often finding (as in last year) that the Vuelta delivered more drama. The Giro / Vuelta ‘arms race’ of metres climbed and summits finished on continue while the Tour seems an altogether classier affair. Expect my opinion on which one has been the greatest to change after each edition.
So what should you expect from the 2016 cycling season? Should you tune in? The short answer is ‘Yes’. The beauty of the sport lies in it’s unpredictable nature and if 2016 can offer riders recovering from shaky starts to capture the rainbow jersey at the end of the year (Sagan) to new faces emerging as grand tour contenders (Chavez, Dumoulin) then there’s a great race out there waiting to happen.
*The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing
So Marcel Kittel got the monkey off his back (or should that be Gorilla?) in his first race since the Tour finished; the 2015 Tour of Poland. No doubt the win was hugely cathartic for the Giant Alpecin rider although if it was meant to herald a return to the heady days of 2014 where he won for fun it didn’t quite go according to plan.
Kittel took the opening stage victory from Orica’s Caleb Ewan and he was in the mix again the following day until a touch of wheels with Lampre Merida’s Sacha Modolo caused an accident that left practically the entire peloton stuck behind the tangled two wheeled wreckage where most of those involved in the bunch sprint were piled on top of one another. Missing from the crash scene was Kittel but he had already lost position before Ewan’s downfall. As he crossed the line behind stage winner Matteo Pelucchi, Kittel showed more emotion than he had at point of victory the day before; erroneously thinking the IAM sprinter had blocked him previously.
Pelucchi took another win the following day with Kittel trailing in a distant 7th as the stage delivered a kick before the line. He lost the overall race lead a day later and that was the end of the beginning of Marcel Kittel’s return to front line racing. His stage one win and the bizarre end to stage two at least delivered some drama to the uninspiring parcours that the race organisers chose for the opening few days. When you have become used to cycling being used as a sometimes not so subtle advertisement for the local tourist board it did seem a bit strange that this years race seemed to have decided to celebrate Poland’s urban rail infrastructure. One stage looping up and down a dual carriage way bisected by a tram line would have been enough; three was probably over doing it.
The second half of the race demonstrated how the Tour of Poland can often throw up an unusual result. Stage 4 provided an unlikely breakaway win and this was followed by the GC changing hands daily as first Bart De Clercq, then Sergio Henao and finally Jon Izaguirre pulled on the leaders jersey. Henao had been in the situation of holding the race lead into the final day’s TT stage at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco earlier this year. If there’s a safe place for your money it’s definitely not betting on Henao winning a stage race when a TT is the deciding factor. It’s still hugely enjoyable just to see the rider racing again after a career threatening injury but Henao is unlikely to be offered the chance of leading Sky in a race that really matters to them anytime soon.
And just as the spores of wild funghi spread across the undergrowth the sponsorship mushrooms of the Tour of Poland continue to multiply. If there’s a symbol of the race for me it’s these inflatable bulbs that line the race route as I have noted previously (here and here). Maybe this was the motive for the finishing circuits on this years race as the mushroom count for this years race surpassed both of the previous years combined. It’s part of the race’s charm that a sponsor can get maximum bang for their buck and yet random members of the crowd can get to the stage winner to claim an autograph of bidon before even the soigneur has handed them a coke and a towel.
So the Giro is the first grand tour of the year and with that a slightly different spin on the Racing Digest. The Digest is normally put together on a Sunday (or Monday latest) to reflect on the previous weeks racing or for the classics the same day. The challenge with a grand tour and even with some stage races is to try and reflect the big stories without missing the fractional elements that can later be described as ‘this was the moment when..’ etc. For now, we’re going to continue with the weekly post but this will be a compilation of the notes made on the actual day of the stage. This might lead to the kind of unforeseen circumstances where a rider can be described as super strong on one day, only to be out of contention the next. For a stage by stage narrative VCSE thinks it will make more sense to leave the notes on each stage unedited each day, instead of applying hindsight perspective at the end of the week.
Is this the right approach? If you would like to see daily grand tour updates please comment at the foot of the post.
As promised in the Giro preview VCSE will also be posting Giro highlights on our dedicated playlist. Where possible we will use footage with commentary in English but in some cases the best footage available is the official Giro video and this has Italian comms only. The playlist can also be viewed at the foot of the post.
Giro Stage 3 – Sorrento to Marina di Ascea
The Giro’s fourth longest stage at 222km is just an aperitif for the second longest the day after. Leaving Sorrento Eurosport picked up the live feed before the stages two principal climbs sparing VCSE 70k’s of mostly straight roads (good choice!).
The peloton had chased down the break by the start of final climb at Catona. Maglia Rosa Salvatore Puccio was minutes down at this point but the main contenders were all at the head of the race. Ryder Hesjedal looked super strong and made a solo break on the climb but sat up pretty quickly, perhaps just laying down a marker. The race got really animated on the descent. When a rider in the Kazak turquoise sped off everyone thought; Nibali. But no, it was Agnoli closely followed by Hesjedal. Hesjedal’s attack on the climb, followed by him leading on the descent fermented debate that went from pure speculation to pretty well informed. Garmin have ex pro Charly Wegelius as DS for the Giro and Twitter stalwart and Garmin owner Jonathan Vaughters pointed out that the safest place to be on a descent is often out front.
As the race came together again Het Nieuwsblad winner Luca Paolini pushed on. As opportunistic a win as his sub zero semi classic earlier in the year Paolini was more concerned with celebrating his victory than taking time off the rapidly closing pack. Nevertheless his advantage at the line (plus time bonuses) was enough to put him into the leaders jersey. On a satorial note Paolini’s win was the first in a grand tour for the new style of ‘aero’ helmets* (well since the late 80’s). Most people have accepted the ‘science’ that there’s some kind of performance advantage to wearing one but are equally in agreement that they are not a good look.
With additional time bonuses on offer for the first finishers there was something to Paolini’s pursuers still to race for. Winner of the bunch sprint for non sprinters was.. Cadel Evans! A canny result and a few of the BMC leaders critics silenced. Evans remained outside the top 10 on GC but there’s lots of racing left. The biggest loser on the day was Lampre’s Michele Scarponi, losing his front wheel and ending up at the side of the road with a broken rear mech for his trouble. Your worst nightmare as a GC rider becoming reality and shared with a global television audience. Scarponi can shrug off the road rash but will need to dig deep to make up the time.
Bradley Wiggins remained in second, 17 seconds down on Paolini maintaining his 14 second advantage on Nibali. Hesjedal rode himself back into contention and was only 3 seconds down on Nibali in seventh.
*This may or may not be a fact. VCSE hasn’t seen one of the ugly things cross a line first this year but we are open to correction!
Giro stage 4 – Policastro Bussentino to Serra San Bruno
With the benefit of hindsight this was probably not the best stage to watch live. Picking up the race with around 100 kilometres to go the remainder of the stage was run along the coast on pretty much entirely straight roads until the final two climbs at 40km from the line. Was the modern black top following the route of some ancient Roman road? We weren’t enlightened and made do with spotting ‘things you can see in the peloton’ for the first hour or so of Eurosport’s coverage. Even the moto’s were looking for ways to keep themselves amused and we were treated to an upside down shot of the field at one point. With Paolini in the Maglia Rosa, Sky were happy to let another team do the work on the front for a change and Katusha put in a big effort. Wiggins was able to sit back in the pack and catch up with Cavendish; cue much conversation on social media about whether or not Cav would be asking about the leadership at the Tour this year.
There was an early break which included the Giro’s first ever Greek entrant; Euskatel’s Ioannis Tamouridis. The main excitement this caused was when Androni’s Emanuele Sella was unceremoniously sent back to the peloton in disgrace for daring to take the virtual GC lead. The stage came back together with around 40km to go as the road began to climb properly. There were a number of brave solo efforts on the stage that warrant a mention. Euskatel’s Miguel Minguez Ayala managed to stay away the longest out of the original break, despite being handicapped at one point by his DS’s bizarre decision to hand him half a dozen bidons. As the final climb wound its way up around near 180 degree hairpins AG2R’s Sylvain George made a bid for a glory gaining nearly a minute twenty at one stage.
These two solo’s were topped by Vini Fantini veteran Danilo Di Luca (he does have an older teammate actually) who showed some class to get over the summit with something to spare and then provided a lesson in how to descend at speed in very wet conditions. It was always going to be touch and go for Di Luca to take the win and he bowed to the inevitable with a few hundred metres left and was overhauled by the group that included Paolini, Evans and Hesjedal.
The irony for Di Luca and Vini Fantini was that the stage was won by another Italian from a pro-conti team, this time a rider at the start of their career: Bardiani Valvolve’s Enrico Battaglin. A big win for the team after losing a major sponsor last year and a massive one for the rider. Paolini could look forward to another day in pink, but the big GC mover was Nibali who recovered from a late wheel change and picked up 17 seconds on Wiggins who dropped to 6th on the same time as Hesjedal*. Cadel Evans, who was in the mix at the finish picked up more places and moved into the top 10, 42 seconds down.
* Wiggins got caught up in someone else’s crash with less than 3km to go. Ordinarily he would have been awarded the same time as the group he had been in (Paolini etc.) but transponder info suggested Wiggins had already been dropped by the leading group at this point. The time lost could be crucial over a 3 week race.
Giro Stage 5 – Cosenza to Matera
A similar profile to the previous days stage albeit shorter by 40 kilometres. The penultimate climb at Montecaglioso wasn’t worthy of a profile in the road book but proved enough of a challenge to shell some of the big names in sprinting. Beforehand the stage was at its most animated at the finish in Matera as torrential rain turned the finish straight into a fast flowing river.
There was a break up ahead but the peloton were in a relaxed mood on pretty much straight roads. The lack of action provided ample opportunity to discuss the ‘controversy’ of Bradley Wiggins losing time on yesterdays stage. Wiggins later admitted that he had been gapped on the run in which meant that one of the more lurid theories, Rigoberto Uran in league with Nibali to upset his team leader, could be discounted.
The English TV feed has featured a DS from each of the teams speculating on what types of rider the day’s stage will favour. Today’s representative Dirk Demol of Radioshack fancied a sprint finish and as the break was reeled in ahead of the final climbs it was the sprinters teams leading the chase. The best laid plans of Omega Pharma and Orica Greenedge fell apart going up Montecaglioso. Mark Cavendish, despite the attentions of three teammates was reduced to riding zigzags as the peloton split apart.
The riders had endured a downpour of their own at this point and the run in the finish in the hilltop town of Matera was still wet. With a series of 90 degree corners into the final uphill finish there was always the chance of a crash. The final bend featured rather more white road markings than you would choose if you had to take them at speed in the wet. One of John Degenkolb’s Argos Shimano lead out was down and in trying to avoid him another (larger) crash ensued. On the finishing straight it looked for a moment that a Bardiani rider was going to take another win but Degenkolb who had avoided the carnage too overtook and was a clear winner at the line. After yesterdays win by one of the new generation of pros; Battaglin it was fantastic to see Degenkolb take his first win since his anti doping statement issued last weekend.
With the final corner crash occurring within 3km of the finish the same time was applied to all finishers in the first group and with no splits the GC did not change from yesterday so Luca Paolini remains in pink for a third day.
Giro Stage 6 – Mola di Bari to Margherita di Savioa
A plan flat stage run on arrow straight roads in warm sunshine had the the peloton in end of term mood. One for the sprinters then, but John Degenkolb didn’t figure today, perhaps the Argos tactic will be to wait for something a bit more lumpy. So the contest would be between Cavendish and chief rivals; Bouhanni, Goss and Viviani.
Some scenes from the first 130 kilometres. Taylor Phinney in recovery mode at the back of the peloton performing the now obligatory ‘let’s do something amusing with the new Giro aero helmet’ with one of the Garmin riders. Not intentionally so, but much funnier were the three riders whose misplaced route saw them on the wrong side of some impressive looking central reservation barriers. The televison director delighted in providing lingering pull back shots from the helicopter to illustrate the hopelessness of their situation. Likely to find themselves needing to dodge oncoming traffic when the closed section of carrigeway was reopened the three eventually surrendered at the feed station and clambered over after handing their bikes over first.
The all Australian breakaway of Cameron Wurf (yes, him again) and Jack Bobridge (Blanco) were reeled in as the stage entered its criterium phase with two laps of a circuit around Margherita di Savioa. Taking in a tight turn before a narrow finishing straight a big crash involving most of the rear of the peloton created a real brain teaser as mechanics worked out how to unpick the interlocked riders and bikes from the pile blocking the road. Caught up in this was most of Team Sky who had gone back to escort Bradley Wiggins after a bike change. As the other teams realised that unblocking the road and matching bikes to riders was going to take some time, shuttle diplomacy began at the head of the race as riders with teammates back in the crash took turns to slow the peloton down. There’s a link to video of the crash below.
Things had sorted themselves out as the final lap started. Wiggins mindful of what had happened a few kilometres earlier and of the 17 seconds lost on stage 4 provided the lead out for the sprinters until the race entered the final straight. It’s an aside, but seeing Wiggins like this; really pushing for the line, is a reminder of just how good he looks on a bike. With a big look of his shoulder to confirm that, yes he had gone under the 3km banner Wiggins relaxed guaranteed the same time as the first finisher.
And first over the line wasn’t really in much doubt as Mark Cavendish had Omega Pharma teammates in front of him. Unlike stage one, Cavendish didn’t really have to work for this one, only launching when the line was in touching distance. Elia Viviani was second again, but convincingly beaten this time. With Matt Goss third, the rider bashing the bars on the line was Nacer Bouhanni of FDJ who had been blocked on the run in. With no change in the GC Paolini retained the Maglia Rosa.
Giro Stage 7 – San Salvo to Pescara
Saturday’s individual time trial was meant to be the day when the Giro really started. Instead it was Friday’s stage to Pescara on a hilly route through the Abruzzo region that served up the drama. With no more than a category three climb to deal with the 177 kilometre stage could have been seen as fairly innocuous, but this is a part of Italy often crossed by the Tirreno Adriatico and what the hills lack in size they make up for gradient. For this stage changeable weather conditions added to the potential for error, unforced or otherwise, that could derail the GC chances of any of the main contenders.
With a six man break up the road including Lotto’s Adam Hansen the peloton were happy to let locally sponsored Vini Fantini do the work at the front. With one rider in contention for the GC and a local rider in Danilo Di Luca early expectations where for Vini Fantini to try for the stage win. For Maglia Rosa Luca Paolini this was a virtual last stage of the race as he fully expected to lose the lead after the time trial. Planning to ride the stage “..like a one day race” Paolini entertained hopes of retaining the leaders jersey for one more day.
As the break away began to ride into the showery weather there were more and more riders sliding off on a combination of hairpin descent and greasy road surfaces. The climbs were having an impact too with the break fragmenting and the peloton shelling riders out the back with regularity. With 20km left Adam Hansen, one of handful of riders to have ridden all three grand tours in a single year was alone after his last breakaway companion crashed. Riders were attempting to escape the peloton with varying degrees of success as the lead group became strung out on the climb.
With around a 4km descent after the final climb it was no surprise to see Vicenzo Nibali attempt to get away from his rivals. The favourites had got up the last climb with varying levels of support as team members had fallen away after doing their turn. Sky had looked less organised than normal, seldom running at the front and Uran falling off after touching Wiggins wheel at one point. Watching Hansen on the same roads minutes earlier it was clear that the descent was sketchy. First, Nibali slid off on a bend but he was back on his bike within seconds. Wiggins someway back negotiated this corner without difficulty, but came to grief on a hairpin further down. Getting back on slowly, he was all alone by the time he reached the bottom of the hill such was his speed in comparison to the other riders. As the road levelled out Wiggins began to push the pedals again and rediscovered his teammates who prepared to pull him to the finish.
While all of this was happening Adam Hansen was crossing the line for a fantastic solo win. In the break for nearly 150km and on his own for the last 20km for VCSE this was the win of the first week. Chapeau! The chasing group came in over a minute down but included Evans, Hesjedal and Nibali. It also included the new Maglia; Benet Intxausti of Movistar who had been ‘sitting’ unobtrusively in 3rd place @ 26 seconds since stage 4. Nibali moved into second with Hesjedal third. Evans cemented his place in the top 10 and Robert Gesink moved into the top 10 from 12th.
And Wiggins? 23rd place @1.32. The plan must have been to not lose any time on his rivals today so that he could press home his advantage over them in the time trial on Saturday. Instead there is the real possibility that any time gained will be needed just to get back on terms with Nibali. Added to the 17 seconds ‘lost’ on stage 4 it’s fair to say it hasn’t been a great week for Sky, with the result in the TTT on Ischia squandered through mostly bad luck, but potentially some tactical errors too. Wiggins has often found himself alone after a problem and the team have appeared to be slow to react. At least Wiggins will know that, barring a mechanical, what happens in stage 8 is down to him. In the time trial you’re racing against yourself as much as the other riders on the road and it’s not known as the ‘race of truth’ for nothing.
VCSE will have more updates after the weekends stages with a rest day coming up on Monday. Check out our YouTube channel for a dedicated playlist with all of the action from week 1.
Lucy Garner wins Stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming
Argos Shimano had more than one thing to celebrate this week with Britain’s double world champion Lucy Garner winning stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming in China. Still only 18, Lucy out sprinted Emma Johansson and Shelley Olds to take the win.
The photo (from Argos Shimano) really captures Lucy’s elation at her victory; seeing a rider without their sunglasses in this case really helps to communicate the emotion and excitement she was feeling. Speaking afterwards Garner said; “I’m so happy I took the win today”
Yet another women’s world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle Honda took the second stage in bad weather with the final stage to be run in criterium format.