The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.
Poels the new Porte?
I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.
Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.
Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.
Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.
Boasson Hagen redux
One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.
His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.
So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.
Who knows who it was who coined the phrase; “The Tour is the Tour”. This is the catch all that is used to explain the goings on that characterise the world’s greatest stage race from the guy who dances around the finishing kilometre dressed as a giant ham sandwich; the drunken Dutch that spend a week on Alpe d’Huez; the fact that this is the only professional bike race that transcends professional bike racing.
But isn’t the Vuelta also The Vuelta? Doesn’t it have its own idiosyncrasies; those things that make it unique? Those features that are just so, well; Vueltaesque. Previewing a grand tour, I’m always looking for half a dozen or so stages that I think will be interesting for the armchair fan. These aren’t always the stages that should be pivotal on paper, although inevitably they’re likely to be included. But the Vuelta can serve up something that inevitably makes me think “Why didn’t I pick this one?” as what appeared to be an innocuous climb turns out to be a sting in the tail. Take stage 6 from last year with the freshly laid strip of tarmac that led straight upwards to La Zubia. The Cumbres Verdes climb might only have been 4.6km but its 13% ramps delivered some of the most exciting racing of the opening week. I didn’t expect much from Sunday’s stage that climbed Alto de Puig Lloren twice but it was one of the most exciting days racing I have seen this year on a climb that was a little over 4km in length (albeit with 19% sections!)
Of course the route just provides the stage (in the theatrical sense) and the riders are the players in the same context. Chris Horner could hardly have been described as an emerging talent in 2013 but whatever you choose to think about the merits of his unheralded victory two years ago it was so surprising it made for compelling viewing and the only grand tour that was genuinely decided on the final stage in 2013. The dramatis personae listed ahead of this years race, the Froome’s, Quitana’s and Valverde’s have only had cameos to play so far. The stars of the show in the first week have been comparative understudies; Esteban Chavez the almost childlike Orica Green Edge climber and Giant Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin.
There was a fair amount of chatter about Orica beginning to move their sights towards the grand tours although much of this had focused on the Yates twins. The announcement that the team had signed Amets Turruka from Caja Rural as a climbing domestique ahead of the Vuelta backed this narrative but it’s hard to believe that the team expected Chavez to have a week like this one. Not one but two stage wins and the leaders jersey for six out of ten days of racing must have been beyond the teams wildest dreams surely. They didn’t just have Chavez to celebrate either with Caleb Ewan taking his maiden grand tour stage win. Chavez played pass the parcel on GC with Tom Dumoulin who had already come to the fore this year as a rival to Tony Martin but certainly not as a grand tour overall contender. Chavez has been a joy to watch on and off the bike and you have to go with the instinct that says he was praising his rival when he described Dumoulin’s reclaiming of the race lead as “unbelievable” almost every other word. Dumoulin’s explanation is that he feels good and that he has lost some weight ahead of the race but more cynical eyebrows might be raised if he is still in pole position after four cat 1 and one HC climb on Wednesday.
The home fans (and the wider audience) find Chavez easy to fall for. He has been charmingly humble about his prospects and it is hard to see how he could prevail against Sky and Movistar at the very least over two more weeks of racing and arguably the toughest week to come this week. The locals ought to be able to take Dumoulin to their hearts as well; a time trailing grand tour winner? I’m pretty certain Spain has had one of those in the not too distant past!
So what of the pre-race favourites. So far not much. They have seemed content to only briefly test their firepower; a stage win for Valverde and Froome going close on Sunday only to be overhauled by Dumoulin at the death. Vincenzo Nibali has capped his miserable season by getting himself disqualified for riding on a team car on stage 2. What Nibali did may or may not be the worst excess of cheating, even in this race, but he was caught (on camera) and was gone without much in the way of genuine protest. He was remarkably prescient on the inconsistency of fines for transgressions within the race when Nacer Bouhanni escaped a similar sanction for an even more blatant car surf the following day by which time Nibali was already licking his wounds at home.
Bouhanni has gone now too. The race has been attritional for sprinters in particular whether that be through injury or simply practical longevity concerns. Ewen has withdrawn in much the same way as the Yates boys were protected at the Tour last year. In what was already a shallow field John Degenkolb might have been expected to fill his boots in much the same way as he has in previous years but he has been relatively quiet so far.
The first week of the 2015 Vuelta has delivered. The organisers might have preferred a Quintana or Valverde in the leaders jersey but in all other respects this years race has provided something for everyone from surprisingly challenging climbs to exciting emerging talents on GC. Tomorrow ought to be fireworks from start to finish as it’s difficult to imagine one team being able to control the race over that many climbs. After such an entertaining first half of the race it’s to be hoped that the rider who emerges from stage 11 at the head of the GC doesn’t grip the race lead too tightly. But the Vuelta is the Vuelta and no doubt there will be more surprises to come in the next ten days.
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.