Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

Now that the dust has settled – VCSE’s Racing Digest #28

Paris Roubaix 2014

That Omega Pharma Quick Step have been the team of this years cobbled classics would not have been disputed ahead of last Sunday’s Paris Roubaix. Sure the Belgian outfit had celebrated a couple of individual wins for Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra respectively in Kuurne Brussels Kuurne and Dwars door Vlaanderen but the most noticeable aspect of the team’s performance had been their ability to get numbers into the final selections in each of the races. Besides Boonen and Terpstra, riders like Stijn Vandenbergh, Zdenek Stybar, Three days of De Panne winner Guillaume Van Kiersbulck and Matteo Trentin had all been part of the action as races entered the final kilometres. The problem was that strength in numbers hadn’t delivered a result in the races that mattered and often it looked like having more than one rider capable of winning was creating confusion among riders and in the team car about who to back for the win.

Niki Terpstra - 2014 Paris Roubaix winner
Niki Terpstra – 2014 Paris Roubaix winner

Through no fault of his own Tom Boonen hasn’t been able to turn his form from February when he took KBK into further wins. It seems unfair to speculate how much of an impact his girlfriends miscarriage had on his racing, after all Boonen would be forgiven if he chosen to withdraw from more than one event under the circumstances. In Flanders and at E3, he didn’t look like he had the legs to challenge his greatest rival Fabian Cancellara leaving the team wondering which horse to back from Boonen’s many lieutenants. VCSE covered in previous posts, but the facts are that the QPQS strategy of backing Boonen, meant that the team appeared unable to think tactically when he faded and other riders should have been given the chance to go for the win. One trick pony Vandenbergh was always going to be an outside bet for the win in Flanders, but given the nod to go at E3, it’s entirely possible Terpstra could have nicked the win.

Of course, Terpstra would take missing out on the semi-classic as he’s now the proud owner of one of the weirdest trophy’s in any sport; the Paris Roubaix cobble (the weirdness continues as the PR winner also gets his name recorded for posterity on a shower cubicle in the velodrome). Boonen had talked about giving a teammate the opportunity to go for the win, even of setting someone else up if he wasn’t well placed on Sunday. The likelihood is that by the time Terpstra attacked with less than 10k to go, Boonen’s legs had gone.

He had attacked early, further out than even his 50k plus solo break in 2012. Watching Boonen was seeing a rider who seemed to know where every cobble lay, every gully that could be followed to avoid the bone shaking pave or to eke out some more speed. He was able to get across to a starry group that included Sky’s Geraint Thomas and later BMC’s Thor Hushovd, but what he couldn’t do was get them to work with him. With the gap to the peloton hovering around the 30 second mark Boonen spent his time between the cobbled sectors either caning it on the front of the break or shouting and gesticulating at his companions to take a turn. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which riders on any of the other teams would work for a four-time winner of this monument, but Boonen’s vain attempts for some collective effort from the breakaway were not helped by the presence of riders from BMC (Hushovd) and Belkin who were riding for Taylor Phinney and Sep Vanmarcke.

While all of this was going on Fabian Cancellara had survived a near miss with a falling teammate and was lurking within the chasing group. He was happy to let first BMC and then Belkin make the running to try to catch group Boonen and didn’t appear to engage anything like top gear until Vanmarcke decided to bridge. Boonen who had stretched the gap to 50 seconds at one point, now saw it plummet until eventually the break was caught. If Boonen and co had still been ahead when they reached Carrefour de l’arbe it’s possible we could have been looking at the first rider to win five Paris Roubaix and possibly the greatest ever.

With such a stellar selection to contest the final stages it was still an outside possibility that Boonen might win at this stage, but with Cancellara now in the lead group there was also a sense that he would find a change of pace and go. When Boonen’s act had played out we had also seen a little cameo from Peter Sagan. Great rider that he undoubtedly is Sagan doesn’t seem at home in Paris Roubaix and his attack never seemed that determined. The rider that left you feeling “could he?” was Bradley Wiggins. Much had been made of Wiggins riding Paris Roubaix and he hadn’t exactly disgraced himself at Flanders the week before. At one stage he even led the race. Yes, you read it here (assuming you didn’t watch it!) Bradley Wiggins led Paris Roubaix. Let’s be clear the Wiggins that showed up on Sunday isn’t the grand tour winner of 2012, but he’s the first grand tour winner of any stripe to have ridden the cobbles for over twenty years. Outside of Terpstra’s win, Wiggins was the ride of the day.

Terpstra’s winning break had something of the Cancellara’s about it; a sudden injection of pace, the extra gear that no one can quite match. While everyone else was going “No, after you” Terpstra was gone. Wiggins and Thomas (yeh, he was still there) had a bit of a chat and based on Wiggins post race comments about “..having the legs” maybe it was Thomas who felt he couldn’t do much more. Rather like what might have happened with Boonen, VCSE can’t help thinking about what might have been if Wiggins and Thomas had gone into pursuit mode and chased Terpstra down. As it was the gap was soon too big and Terpstra was able to enjoy his lap of the velodrome before falling into the arms of his doris once he crossed the line.

The win will put some gloss on OMQS classics season and in Terpstra there’s the potential for a successor to Boonen as their go to man in the classics. Can Boonen win a fifth Paris Roubaix (or even a fourth Flanders?)? VCSE thinks probably not, even though we would love it if he did. He will be 35 next year and while Cancellara has been there or thereabouts himself this year, a second successive Flanders win masks a significantly less successful year than last. This is likely to mean a stronger Cancellara challenge in 2015 and with riders like Vanmarcke improving all the time it’s likely that Boonen’s days as the unofficial King of Flanders are numbered.

Vuelta a Pais Vasco 

A couple of lines from our favourite stage race of last year. This year’s Tour of the Basque country was held in relatively fine weather and perhaps this made for a less exciting race. The GC contest was pretty much settled on day one as Alberto Contador sailed up the least likely cat 2 climb on this years world tour to take a 14 second lead over Alejandro Valverde. The line up for the race had suggested that the GC would be more widely contested but with Carlos Betancur withdrawing after stage one the attrition rate took place each morning rather than on any of the climbs as one by one the GC boys packed their bags. Contador looked as good as he did in Tirreno Adriatico in that he delivered one spectacular ride and was then unspectacular in holding onto his lead. Valverde was marked tightly by Contador’s Tinkoff teammates and you felt that he was never going to beat his compatriot in the contest that mattered.

Omega Pharma had a great week with two stage wins for Tony Martin and one for Wout Poels. The first of Martin’s wins was a watered down version of his all day solo breakaway at last years Vuelta except here he went one better and actually one the stage. Martin’s winning margin in his specialist event wasn’t anything like as convincing but unlike Rui Costa, Martin has broken the curse on his rainbow jersey.

Unlikeliest win of the week came from Sky’s Ben Swift who showed a hitherto unknown capacity for climbs to win the penultimate stage. Take a look at the top 10 for the day and the complete absence of sprinters demonstrates the parcours that Swift needed to negotiate to take the win. The irony that Swift could win the stage ahead of so many GC riders is that in all likelihood if the stage had come down to a bunch sprint among sprinters he would probably finished top 10 at best (Swift was fourth in stage 3’s bunch sprint). After a fine showing in Milan San Remo, Swift might be an outside contender for one of the Ardennes classics, although it’s hard to imagine him sprinting up the Mur de Huy somehow. Perhaps the emergence of Swift as a classics option might see Sky finally pull the plug on poor old Edvald Boasson Hagen who continues to serve up poor performances in the races where he is a supposed ‘protected’ rider.

Froome’s ‘Lance’ moment

And so we inevitably turn to Sky. Chris Froome chose to ignore Ron Burgandy’s advice to “Stay classy” on Sunday by posting a picture from his training ride on Tenerife. OK, so it’s possible that Froome ‘dog’ still lets his missus post on his behalf but nothing says I don’t give a toss about what my teammates are doing right now in northern France than a picture of a snowcapped mountain and the admission that you have spent your day on a long training ride. This is the kind of self awareness that Lance Armstrong showed when he posted his Tour jersey photo after USADA and suggests that its Froome who had the problem with Wiggins before Wiggins had a problem with Froome. If there are teams within this team, VCSE is in team Wiggins.

In other news, Sir Dave Brailsford has stepped down from British Cycling to concentrate full time on Sky. Whether or not this is good news for Team GB and the track cycling unit remains to be seen (say in 2016) but it’s likely to mean good news for Sky. There isn’t any sign of the wheels coming off the Sky juggernaut yet, but this year hasn’t been particularly overwhelming either with Froome’s repeat win in Oman they only major success. For one reason or another Sky haven’t been the team riding on the front in stage races and while the classics outfit has enjoyed more success than last year, they’re still to land a major one day success. Brailsford bringing his laser focus full time to Sky is likely to bring fresh successes, but don’t be surprised to see the team winning races differently to the methods employed in 2012 and 2013.

Swiss roll over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #27

Tour of Flanders 2014

“I’ve got this.. I’ve got this..” or words to that effect was Sep Vanmarcke’s message to his team car as he approached the finish line after 250 kilometres of racing at the Ronde. “No I haven’t” is what he should have said after he crossed the line in third place to Fabian Cancellara (OK, let’s be honest it was probably some Franco / Belge expletives).

Can I win Roubaix too? - Fabian Cancellara
Can I win Roubaix too? – Fabian Cancellara

Vanmarcke wasn’t the only one kicking himself. BMC’s Greg van Avermaet had gone away late on and it felt like he could go one better than his Het Nieuwsblad 2nd place from earlier in the year. This years Ronde came down to a sprint of the track variety (missing only track stands) and it was 2013 winner Cancellara who out foxed his rivals. A week away from Paris Roubaix his rivals must be wondering what they can do to deny Cancellara another win in next weeks race. Whether or not you think Spartacus possesses a sprint, the fact is Vanmarcke and van Avermaet (in particular) are decent quick men. Stijn Vandenbergh, an analogue rider against digital rivals recognised that in a four way sprint he would be favourite for fourth place and attacked first. Indicative of his place as Tom Boonen’s bag carrier, Vandenbergh gave up almost as soon as he started, sacrificing a lead that looked as if it could stick, as a lack confidence manifested itself immediately. Vandenbergh’s bid to escape might have lacked conviction but it looked most likely to succeed. Instead as the final few hundred metres disappeared beneath their wheels it was Cancellara who got the drop on the other three. Unlike last year, this wasn’t a victory to savour in the final kilometre’s Cancellara had to work for this one and the emotions weren’t released until he crossed the line and began punching the air.

Vanmarcke and van Avermaet rolled over in second and third and in disbelief; “what just happened”. The result is potential hex on both riders, experiencing another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. The positives are that both riders (and in fairness Vandenbergh too) have been consistent performers in the classics so far this year, but the fact is that this was a race both men could have won. It cannot be disputed either that Cancellara is the srongest rider in the classics right now and in the monuments when it really counts. It’s hard to see who’s going to beat him this year and Trek must feel vindicated in pulling out all of the stops to deny Sky taking him on last year when Radioshack finished as headline sponsor.

Having the numbers when the selection had taken place was no advantage for Omega Pharma Quick Step. The problem for QPQS was tactical. By the time it was clear that Tom Boonen was coming up short again, they lacked a rider who could take up the challenge of beating Cancellara. Boonen’s heavyweight shadow Vandenbergh had been sent up the road to cover van Avermaet’s late break, but as is so often the case he lacks the speed and guile to carve out a win for himself. Boonen, chasing a fourth Ronde victory may have believed until the last and that might be why the in form Niki Terpstra was released too late to catch the leading four.

Boonen wasn’t the only pre-race favourite who popped. Peter Sagan looked like he wished that the race distance had been about 50km less and was unable to go with Cancellara when the Trek team leader attacked. Given the choice Sagan would swap his E3 victory and the win that almost wasn’t in stage 1 of the Three Days of De Panne for a win in the Ronde. At 24 he can potentially be a classics contender for another ten years, but it seems that Sagan is subdued by the pressure to deliver a monument win. At least he will have a week to recover ahead of Paris Roubaix; the De Panne stage win looks extremely poor value if it was this that left Sagan without legs today.

This years edition was a bit of a crashfest with accidents ranging from the typical for a cobbled classic to the bizarre, such as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych getting unseated by a female spectator’s handbag. His teammate Stijn Devolder who had proved so valuable to Cancellara at E3 seemed to only feature on camera immediately after another mishap in an accident prone afternoon for the Belgian champion.

And so to your VCSE predictions. We tipped Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the our last post ( and predicted that OPQS would be the strongest team. Geraint Thomas was an unlikely podium for Sky, but he was their best finisher in 8th place. Can we keep it up for Paris Roubaix next week? If you want to find out, follow the blog! Here’s a thought though; late entry to the Ronde Bradley Wiggins finished in 32nd place. Can he go better in the ‘hell of the north’ next Sunday?

Your world cup leader is..

Great to see Lizzie Armitstead leading the points table in the women’s World Cup. She finished second to Bols Dolmans teammate Ellen van Djik in the women’s Tour or Flanders today after winning the opening round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It’s been a great week for Lizzie as she signed a contract extension to 2016 with her Boels Dolmans team.

Tour of the Basque Country

Starts tomorrow! Last year’s edition was one of the highlights of the 2013 season with biblical rain and some outstanding rides from eventual winner Nairo Quintana and KOM Caja Rural’s Amets Txurruka. Quintana is missing this year; Movistar will be led by Alejandro Valverde. Ag2R have a potential double team in Jean-Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur to match up against previous grand tour winners Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal and Alberto Contador. There’s a strong Basque presence including (interestingly) Sky led by in form Mikel Nieve in the absence of Froome or Porte in what’s often seen as an important tune up for the Giro. With Quintana absent too, we shouldn’t read too much into this, but the race could be an opportunity for one of Sky’s new GC orientated signings (Phil Deignan is racing too) to raise themselves up the pecking order on the death star.

Swift Returns – VCSE’s Racing Digest #25

Milan San Remo 2014

In exchange for a perfect ribbon of smooth tarmac it’s probable that residents living alongside the Poggio, the final climb of the Milan San Remo route, can leave with the inconvenience of the race one day in early spring each year. The road is deserving of it’s pristine status as it by the time reaches it’s summit with 6 kilometres to go the race is either won or about to be.

Winner MSR 2014 - Alexander Kristoff
Winner MSR 2014 – Alexander Kristoff

This is, depending on your point of view, the beauty or the problem with Milan San Remo. The longest classic at almost 300km in length and with a largely benign profile it’s the ‘monument’ that is seen as offering the best chance of a sprint finish. The Poggio and it’s predecessor climb on the route, the Cipressa have been included over the years to try and keep interest in a race that can see the winning rider take 7 hours to complete the distance. The idea is that the climbs will force a selection or provide a breakaway with the kind of gap they would need to stay away to the line. It’s true that each ascent has thinned out the peloton over the last couple of years, but even as the race has entered the final kilometre it’s been anyone’s race.

Last year through up a surprise winner in MTN Quebeka’s Gerald Ciolek. The race had been part neutralised after heavy snow had fallen on the route and the remainder of the race was run in the kind of conditions you might expect in Belgium, rather than hugging the Mediterranean. Ciolek was unfancied ahead of the race in MTN Quebeka’s first season racing in Europe. This might have been the deciding factor that allowed him to burst to the head of the race at the crucial point, producing a sprint that beat a high profile podium comprising Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.

Milan San Remo receives live television coverage as the first of the five ‘monument’ one-day classics. It’s hard to imagine a broadcaster taking any more than the final couple of hours though as the first 200km are pretty dull viewing. Not quite as inclement as last year, the early part of this years race provided interest in deciding who has the worst helmet design in the peloton if nothing else. Trying to predict a winner from the riders showing themselves, even with 60km to go, is speculation at best.

The fancied riders this year were the pure sprinters like Cavendish, Degenkolb and Greipel. Sagan, of course, was in the mix too, but a later change to the route had much of the pre-race discussion centred on the likelihood of a bunch sprint finish. The first firm potential race winning attack came from Vincenzo Nibali who attacked ahead of the Poggio and overhauled the remains of the break ahead of the final climb. Can you imagine a GC style rider from Sky putting in attack like that? The Nibabli cameo lasted 15km and by the time the Poggio was reached the Sicilian was out the back suffering from a lack of legs or lack of support for the final push.

The group that was left was larger than last year and included Ciolek, hinting that he might not be a one hit wonder as far as the race was concerned. Sagan and Cancellara were in the mix too but so were the some of the sprinters, Cavendish included. There was much post race discussion on social media about eventual winner Alexander Kristoff who had odds that would have reflected Ciolek last year at 100-1. What sparked the discussion was that Kristoff had been tipped figuratively if not literally by some commentators as someone who “..loves long races”.

Led out for much of the finale by Luca Paolini, in truth Kristoff didn’t look to be in much difficulty of losing in the sprint to the line. The race was for the podium places, although judging from Cancellara’s reaction on the line he must have thought he was closing. The top 10 had some interest lines though. Ben Swift’s third place finish is the Sky riders biggest result for some time. Like a number of his teammates, VCSE hasn’t really been convinced of Swift’s chances against the world’s best sprinters, but yesterday’s result will probably be heralded as something of a breakthrough. It was the first time Swift has run MSR and it’s a race he has suggested he would do well in. Whether that’s based on more than just a feeling he has isn’t clear, but Swift was on the front of the peloton riding in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen late in the race and it was his supposed team leader that faded and not Swift. Following Ian Stannard’s win at OHN this podium will add to the theory that Sky are beginning to show more form in the classics, but at this stage the VCSE view remains that they’re just having a better year. Stannard was praised for his 6th place in last years MSR, so Swift can expect to get some favourable press and more importantly for the rider more chances to ride this year.

Sagan scraped into the top 10 and didn’t look like the rider described in pre-race discussions. Is he feeling the pressure to deliver this year? Cancellara picked up another podium and possibly one that was looking less likely. With Tom Boonen absent from MSR for personal reasons it’s not possible to draw to many conclusions about the match up to follow at E3 this Friday and looking further ahead to the Ronde and Paris Roubaix. Whether Boonen is able to put personal tragedy aside (will he want to?) may determine the direction of the remaining spring races.

Quick look ahead to the Tour of Catalunya

Dan Martin will defend his title but all eyes will be on Chris Froome in his first race back since missing Tirreno Adriatico with a back injury. The line up is pretty starry actually with Joaquim Rodriuez, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Chris Horner all riding. There will be lots of interestin sub plots including the Columbian match up between Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur.

Obviously, the race is a warm up for all involved, but with Betancur and Contador coming off strong wins in Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico respectively the prospects for some punches to be traded on the mountain stages on Wednesday and Thursday look good.

Froome will be supported by Sky’s normal roster of super domestiques with David Lopez and Mikel Nieve already lookin strong this year. Froome will also have Richie Porte, his closest ally from last years success at the Tour. Might Sky throw us all a curve ball this year and back Porte for GC? Porte hasn’t looked that strong yet this year and the Giro is nearer on the horizon. However, Froome will want to show that his injury is just a bump on the road if he’s to maintain the psychological advantage he enjoyed over his rivals last year.

Whatever happens, it’s looking like a good race to watch. It’s just a shame that Martin will probably be outgunned in his title defence. It’s hard to see him being allowed to escape and win the queen stage like he did last year and from there the overall.

No Sky.. No comment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #24

Paris Nice wrap up

If you’re one of the occasional readers of this blog you might be forgiven for thinking VCSE is a bit of a Team Sky fanboy. Certainly the team behind the Death Star crop up pretty often in these pages but that’s as much to do with the teams poor showing in one day races rather than the way they impose (or attempt to) themselves on stage races. Since the teams ‘difficult’ birth in 2010 where results didn’t match the hype and expectations Sky have proved to be a flagship example of the thoroughness that has made British Cycling and British cycling so successful. Winners of the last two Tour de France the team have also treated some of ASO’s other headline races as a Sky benefit in the last three years. Sky have delivered the last three winners of Paris Nice, previously seen as a warm up for the classics, but from Sky’s point of view an opportunity to drill their high tempo superdomestiques for the grand tours.

Big win for Colombia  & French cycling - Carlos Betancur
Big win for Colombia & French cycling – Carlos Betancur

The last week has seen a reversal of fortune for Sky. Not yet of terminal proportions, but a reminder of the unpredictable nature of road racing and the teams inability to go to a ‘plan B’ when their strategy unravels. Richie Porte, last years Paris Nice winner, was moved into Sky’s Tirreno Adriatico line up at short notice after Chris Froome was injured. This went down like a lead balloon with the ASO and things weren’t helped by Sky’s tacit disapproval of the parcours for this years edition that did away with the final day’s TT up the Col d’Eze and featured no summit finishes. ASO shouldn’t be criticised for changing the format; most people who have seen the race this week have said they have found it more exciting. The normally monosyllabic Sean Kelly, a seven time winner of the race and known as ‘Monsieur Paris Nice’ was probably at his most animated during commentary alongside Rob Hatch. We were treated to a weeks racing where the final outcome for GC could have been decided in the last few kilometres of the race. So, ultimately the race was won by a climber, but this was a racer’s race with the contenders at the sharp end at the death each day.

Sky elevated Geraint Thomas to team leader in Porte’s absence and the Welshman did take the overall at one point during the race, only to fall out of contention after a nasty crash on the penultimate stage. By then AG2R’s Carlos Betancur had taken the yellow jersey following back to back stage wins during the week. Betancur was well looked after by a team that aren’t that familiar with trying to control a race, but it was good to see a race being controlled using old school methods like covering attacks, rather than relentless drilling on the front that seems to have become the norm with Sky. A bit of an aside here; Movistar have taken to riding on the front this year too and AG2R should be grateful for that as the Spanish team kept the breakaway riders very honest today for the final stage.

Just as it’s too early to write Sky off, it’s far too soon to talk about the curse of the rainbow jersey. World champion Rui Costa had a couple of close finishes at Paris Nice, but the disappointment of missing out on those wins was probably less painful than the crash he got caught up in on today’s final stage. He looks like a great signing for Lampre and bike sponsor Merida are making the most of him too in their new TV advert.

Assuming Thomas is still being viewed as a classics specialist then his performance in Paris Nice, at least until his crash, was pretty decent. He still doesn’t look like someone who’s about to win a big one day race, let alone a stage race but taking the lead in Paris Nice is another step forward from holding the lead for a few days in the 2013 Tour Down Under.

Betancur ends the week as the leading rider on the world tour. The ‘big’ names; Froome, Nibali etc. are nowhere to be seen at the moment, but Froome rides in the Volta a Catalunya in a weeks time and it’s hard to imagine that the table will look like this by the end of July. Despite this, Betancur’s result is a big one for him and Colombian cycling, perhaps elevating him in front of Rigoberto Uran if not Nairo Quintana for now.

It’s also a massive result for French cycling; today’s win for AG2R was the first for a French team in Paris Nice since the 1980’s. If it’s also a sign that cycling is becoming ‘cleaner’ if a French team can win Paris Nice it’s no bad thing, but for now the real winners are ASO for showing how interest can be maintained in a race if you dispense with endless summit finishes.

Tirreno Adriatico – the story so far

If the parcours for Tirreno Adriatico suited Richie Porte more than that on offer at Paris Nice we will never know as he pulled out of the event after Saturday’s stage. Porte never really looked like he was in contention this week and if he really was suffering from a virus it might explain his feeble digs on the climbs this week.

The early part of the race belonged to Omega Pharma. With Tony Martin and Mark Cavendish in the line up, the world TTT champions took the leaders jersey after stage one with Cavendish eventually surrendering it to teammate Michael Kwiatowski. The Pole is in great form after a win at Strade Bianche and considering the mix in the OPQS squad between GC specialists like Kwiatowski and Uran and Cavendish’s lead out train the team did well to keep the lead for so long. Uran seems out of sorts at the moment, perhaps unsettled by the more established Kwiatowski’s performances so far this year.

Kwiatowski finally faltered on Sunday’s stage losing the lead to Tinkoff Saxo’s Alberto Contador who has looked stronger as the week has gone on. Contador looked like he was back to his best, teeing up his stage win and stealing the lead from Kwiatowski with an economical ride in Saturday’s stage. Ably supported by Roman Kreuziger, who also looked super strong yesterday the two teammates saw off rivals and got within a minute of Kwiatowski ahead of today’s (Sunday) stage. It’s hard to see Contador giving up the GC now with a flat stage tomorrow ahead of the final TT.

An in form Contador is good news for those of us that don’t want the grand tours to be just about when Chris Froome will take the lead this year. Let’s just say this once more; it is far too soon to write Sky off, but for those that want some drama at the head of a stage race a resurgent Alberto Contador and the continued emergence of good Colombian riders is a very good thing indeed.

Revolution series round 5 – London Velodrome

VCSE was lucky enough to attend one of the sessions at the Revolution series final round this weekend. This was the first competition to be held in the Velodrome since the Olympics and there’s was a pretty much a full house, even at the afternoon session we joined.


First, a bit of a confession. Track cycling doesn’t really do it for your correspondent. That’s not to say all of it, but some of the events and not necessarily the obvious ones, are a bit of a yawn. For example, where’s the excitement in watching a three lap track stand contest? That said, even up in the gods it was as interesting to watch the riders prepare and then wind down between events. Seeing Laura Trott calmly walk over and pick up a flip top bin before vomiting into it after her pursuit round is a visceral insight into what it takes to win. A semi-serious debate between track commentator Hugh Porter and the crowd (via Twitter) about why velodrome tracks always turn left mentioned the connection with the Roman chariot races. There is something gladiatorial about the track and some riders know how to involve the crowd and then exploit that to their advantage. World champion Francois Pervis was able to get the kind of reaction that belied the fact that here was a Frenchman beating a British Olympic champion in his own backyard.

Pervis was putting the hurt on Trott’s other half, Jason Kenny. You imagine that Trott is properly supportive of her boyfriend no matter how he performs, but it maybe another psychological hurdle to overcome if you’re partner is winning for fun and you’re struggling to make the final. Trott it seems is not fazed by anything, even being physically sick in front of thousands of fans and the going to sign autographs for an hour. Before the incident with the bin, Trott was able to remove her aero helmet and do a victory lap that gave no indication of what was to come.

The Olympic legacy seems alive and well with the turnout for the Revolution. The biggest cheers were always going to go for the riders that the crowd had heard of; there was surprise and a little dismay when Dani King was beaten by Katie Archibald in the pursuit. Hugh Porter whipped things up as much as a man in his seventies could do when the crowd went a little flat and eventually the men’s points race had the crowd hooked when each sprint came around.

Trott ended the event with a fantastic score of six points in the omnium, the lowest possible score being six points for six victories. There’s obviously strength in depth in British track cycling but Trott looks like someone who can become truly dominant. We’re left with a hankering to stand in the centre of the track at the Ghent six day; as exciting as the racing was from the stands with a diet coke, watching amongst the crowd with a beer sounds like the way to go!

Revolution @ London Velodrome
Revolution @ London Velodrome

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

You remember Zdenek Stybar don’t you? No? He’s the eight year professional with Omega Pharma Quick Step last seen being nerfed out of the race at Paris Roubiax. After an injury blighted season the cyclo-crosser come road racer resurfaced at last weeks Eneco Tour and not only won two stages but the overall as well. It could well have been three stage wins out of the seven on offer, but the Czech rider just missed out to Team Sky’s David Lopez who won stage 6 on the legendary La Redoute climb. Describing his win as “..dream come true” after knee surgery that forced him to miss this years Tour de France Stybar triumphed across a parcours that featured many of the ascents that feature in the Belgian spring classics.

Ian Stannard
Ian Stannard (Photo credit: Brendan A Ryan)

Winning the final stage was the icing on the cake but the party was almost spoiled by another member of the Sky squad bidding for a stage win. Ian Stannard may be developing a bit of a reputation as a bridesmaid after hard graft results in someone else taking the glory, but ‘Yogi’ has enhanced his reputation again here following his dogged pursuit of the win at this years Milan San Remo and a strong support role at the Tour. Stannard is without doubt an ‘engine’ which may not be to his advantage in the cat and mouse game that is the final kilometre of a stage. However, he does look like a rider that can do a job for Sky on this type of terrain. He’s likely to have protected status for the classics next season, but Sky’s team leader may yet have to show his face. INRNG suggests that Sylvain Chavanel will be riding for a Pinarello shod team next season. It’s hard to imagine Movistar prioritising the classics and Sky need a ‘face’ who’s a proven winner in the Juan Antonia Flecha mould (ah.. hold on a sec.. should say potential winner). With Sky rumoured to have courted Fabian Cancellara before he re-signed with Trek, the need for a marquee classics signing increased and Chavanel fits the bill.

Unfortunately for Sky, the UK is more likely to inspire stage race and grand tour wannabes as the country continues to ride on the wave of interest sparked by multiple Tour de France wins. In the short term they may have to rely on brought in talent from overseas to realise their goal of a classics win.

The had been talk of that student of road racing history and folklore Sir Bradley Wiggins bulking back up for a tilt at Paris Roubaix. Wiggins followed up his low key return to racing in the Tour of Poland with a similarly disinterested appearance at Eneco. In Poland intentions were clear with Wiggins surrendering his leaders position to Sergio Henao. A week or so later in the low countries and with a strong team around him, the sight of Wiggins going out the back on stage one was a pretty strong indicator that he wasn’t focused on the GC. The often mis-firing Sky PR machine was wheeled out with the big reveal that he would be going for victory in the TT, further preparation for the world championships in September.

The TT stage over a not quite prologue like 13 or so kilometres was technical, not the length or route that Wiggins would chosen, but expectations would have been high for a win. A sense that the wheels were coming off at least figuratively became apparent when Radioshack’s Jesse Sergent crossed the line 15 seconds faster. Ironic if Chavanel is Sky bound as it was the French TT winner who ended up taking the stage.

Taking everything into account about the distance and technical nature of the course this is more of a bump in the road as opposed to the kind of setback that Wiggins endured in the Giro. There’s a sense that he is still something of a fragile character after Italy, so the focus on his strongest discipline is understandable. While Chris Froome was arguably the stronger on the climbs during Wiggin’s Tour win in 2012, Froome is yet to beat him against the clock. If anything Wiggins seems to become more reconciled to his position in the team with interviews over the last few weeks describing how he wouldn’t expect to lead a GC assault if Froome was in the same squad and now indicating a return to track cycling for the 2016 Olympics.

The weeks racing was interesting also for the ability of individual riders to upset the bunch sprint. This was played out to greatest effect in stage 1 with a sprinter actually causing the break. Whether by accident of design Omega Pharma destined Belkin rider Mark Renshaw pulled off an enjoyable (for this viewer anyway) upset that seemed to surprise most of the peloton and maybe even some of his teammates. There’s a link to Renshaw’s power data for the stage on our Facebook site.

Wiggins isn’t the only rider having a year to forget. Current world road race champion Philippe Gilbert had another week to forget at Eneco and is without a win this year. If there is a ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ there aren’t many better ways to illustrate it. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta with a similar uphill finish to his favourite Fleche Wallone. How he (and BMC) will be hoping for a similar result for this years race.

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

After the hype ahead of this years Giro and the 100th Tour the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana is facing an uphill struggle for attention every bit as steep as the Alto de L’Angliru. Last years edition benefited from Alberto Contador’s return to grand tour racing. Not surprisingly, Spanish riders are always up for the home races and last year was no exception with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez joining Contador in the GC battle. Hard as it is to imagine after his dominant form this year that the 2012 Vuelta was the first race for Chris Froome as an official team leader.

Froome, fatigued from his efforts supporting Bradley Wiggins in the Tour, faded as the Vuelta’s climbs became steeper and eventually finished far from disgraced in 4th. The early leader was Rodriguez, but he was to experience disappointment again as with his runner up spot in the Giro earlier the same year. Rodriguez was expected to lose his lead to Froome or Contatdor during the TT, but he survived until Contador attacked on a relatively innocuous looking stage 17 and rode away for the stage win. Rodriguez left exposed on the stage took another kick as a resurgent Valverde overhauled his 2nd place. Contador, whatever anyone might think of his provenance looked imperious and anyone watching would have predicted that 2013’s strongest rider was likely to be the recently returned Spaniard.

The race was notable for the emergence of John Degenkolb, who dominated the sprint stages for Argos Shimano, taking five altogether.  VCSE’s stage of the race was the solo win by local pro-conti Caja Rural rider Antonio Piedra at the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.

So, what of this years version? Just as the Tour, last years winner is missing. Contador pulled out from the race before the Tour had even finished and Saxo Bank will be led by Contador’s ‘shadow’ at the Tour Roman Kreuzinger. Froome has massively transcended his situation from last year, where team leadership at the Vuelta was his reward for helping Wiggins at the Tour. Based on that train of thought might we have expected Richie Porte to lead Sky in Spain? No, Froome and Porte are in the US for the Pro Challenge. Sky as they are minded to do will probably select their Spanish riders like Lopez and Xandio in support and lead with the Columbian’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. Team leader will probably be Henao. Uran’s departure to Omega Pharma will be a mark against the rider who if not physically stronger, seems to have the psychological edge over his compatriot.

Although they have had a month to recover it remains to be seen if Rodriguez or Valverde can summon up the reserves to take them two or one place further respectively this time around. Valverde’s Tour fell apart after the wind effected stage from Tours in week two. Shorn of team leaders responsibilities he was able to animate the race in the final week, peaking similarly to the Vuelta last year. For all of the success Valverde’s Movistar team have achieved with several stage wins in this years Giro and Tour, it’s the Vuelta that is the biggest prize for a Spanish sponsored and based team. The Columbian connection continues with AG2R bringing Carlos Betancur. Betancur’s performances in the Giro have been overshadowed by Quintana’s Tour successes, but the AG2R man should come into the race with fresher legs. Rodriguez looked ecstatic with third place in the Tour but surely has ambitions beyond a podium place at every grand tour.

Dan Martin will lead Garmin and has said that he is going for GC, but may be better placed for stage wins, the aim of Orica Green Edge. With extinction looming riders from Euskatel will be looking to put in some strong performances in their home race to reinforce their pitch for a new berth next season. It’s disappointing that so many riders have publicly declared that they are using the Vuelta for training but this should at least allow for allow for some open racing. There’s some interest in the wild cards too with Net App Endura securing an invitation to this years race to provide some Anglo German interest.

So, we have mentioned riders returning to major action since the Giro like Betancur and Uran, but what of the Giro winner. Vincenzo Nibali, the only rider to have beaten Chris Froome in head to head competition this year has performed in almost as low a key as Wiggins since his Giro win. Knowing the Italian was missing the Tour this year to focus on the Giro it was reasonable to think that he would tilt at a Giro Veulta double. Since then Nibali has announced his late season focus is on the world championships being held in Florence in September. A Nibali in form, the same form as he showed in the Giro and earlier in the season, would be an easy prediction for the overall. Nibali is a pretty straight shooter so if he says he isn’t going for GC it will be pretty clear if it’s a smoke screen when the race starts going uphill.

VCSE’s GC Prediction – 1. Valverde 2. Rodriguez 3. Betancur (unless Nibali decides to ride and then all bets are off!)

For the second year ITV4 will be showing an hour long highlights show. Live coverage will be on Eurosport (this obviously applies for UK viewers).

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

Stage 8 (Saturday 31st August) Jerez de la Frontera to Estapona – Actually a cat 1 summit finish with the race visiting the far south of the country.

Stage 14 (Saturday 7th September) Baga to Andorra – Features the highest climb of the race, the 2380m Port de Envalira

Stage 15 (Sunday 8th September) Andorra to Peyragudes – The longest stage of the race crossing into France and over the Col de Peyresourde and 3 more 1st Cat climbs.

Stage 20 (Saturday 15th September) Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru – The traditional penultimate stage with the Hors Category summit finish.

And here’s the GCN view

Rise of the inflatable sponsorship mushroom – VCSE’s Racing Digest #15

Tour de Pologne 

That this was the seventieth or so edition of the Tour of Poland may have escaped you if you didn’t realise that this is the UCI’s reincarnation of the iron curtain era Peace Race. A Cannondale benefit for the last two years with overall victories for Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser, a lack of interest in defending the crown this time around was visible in the selection of Ivan Basso as team leader. Speaking of faded glories, who was that on the start list? Only Sir Bradley Wiggins making his first appearance since the Giro but hinting at something low key by taking the last of six places in the Sky team.

Bradley Wiggins at the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
Bradley Wiggins in time trial mode (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taking place almost immediately after this years Tour de France there was inevitably an absence of riders from the that race, but this was made up for by the return of the faces from the Giro; Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali and from the distant past of the spring classics, Fabian Cancellara. There was a notable refugee from the Tour present. Christophe Riblon called into the AG2R squad due to injury and missing out on a stack of invitations to the post Tour criteriums that demand the presence of the French hero du jour. The post Tour Crits, essentially exhibition races with pre-ordained outcomes are extremely lucrative for their participants. They do require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator however finely balanced or unpredictable the outcome may appear the star attraction must win.

The UCI are considering their own devices that might ensure their sanctioned races avoid the possibilty that one or two teams can force the outcome of a race. The experiment in Poland was smaller teams of six riders. The VCSE view would be that the idea seemed to work quite well. Some things remained the same; there were the normal politics of who could or couldn’t go in the break. Smaller teams appeared to lessen the amount of time one team could stay on the front and whether by accident or design chasing down a break required cooperation. The need for versatility when choosing six rather than nice riders allowed the all rounders like Riblon and Thor Hushovd who won two stages here to come to the fore.

BMC had a good Tour of Poland following neatly on from their overall at the Tour de Wallonie the week before. Hushovd looked in his best form of this year and may even fancy his chances at the world championships on the strength of this week. Win of the week and not just for BMC was Taylor Phinney’s cheeky late break on stage 4. It was strange to think that this was Phinney’s first professional win.

Did the UCI’s novelties extend the the inflatable sponsors mushrooms (or were they light bulbs) or was this an invention of the race organisers. The same organisers had an interesting approach to on screen information with blink and you’ll miss it time gaps. Perhaps the plan was give the viewer an idea of what it was like without race radios. Keen eyed armchair fans will often see a hire van and a couple of hi viz wearing staffers waiting at the side of the road who will dismantle the races road furniture after the peloton has passed. You had to feel sorry for the students who nabbed a summer job on the Tour of Poland and found that they would be spending their time inflating the many hundreds (thousands?) of sponsors mushrooms that adorned the route. Can’t see them catching on really.

The second rank stage races often throw up the most entertaining and animated races with the smaller teams in Poland adding to the mix and ensuring the yellow leaders jersey changed riders several times. Riblon justified his selection with a stage win and just missed out on the overall by seconds on the final stage time trial. He was demonstrably frustrated with losing the race lead on the final day but with his stage win over a tough profile in Trentino decorating his Alpe d’Huez Tour victory Riblon looks like the real deal. Unlike last years hero Thibaut Pinot, Riblon has form with another Tour stage win in 2010.

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

We have too often found that our new gods have feet of clay this year with riders appearing to hit rich form only to discover later it was illegally enhanced. It’s practically impossible to believe this could be the case with Riblon, a French rider in a French team, with the severe anti doping laws in that country. Unlikely to be a factor in grand tours if nothing else Riblon’s performances cement AG2R’s place as the preeminent French world tour team of 2013. Whatever the expectations of the nation that produced Anquetil and Hinault, the teams probably set their bars lower and Riblon’s recent performances coupled with Carlos Betancur’s in the Giro would certainly be envied by FDJ this year. With the race starting in Italy for two stages it was not surprising to see the Italian based and managed Columbia team make an appearance that was rewarded with a stage win and second place for Darwin Atapuma on stages six and one respectively.

Of the returning Giro protagonists there was little sign early on in the race. VCSE spied Bradley Wiggins popping out the back on stage 1 but what became clear from reports if not the coverage was that he was working hard earlier in the stage in support of Sergio Henao. On stage 5 we actually got the evidence for ourselves, treated to Wiggins riding a massively determined turn that destroyed any hopes that the breakaway could stay ahead. As the race went on it became clear that things were getting tee’d up neatly for Wiggins to have a tilt at the win in the final stage time trial. All of the talk now is of him going for the TT in the world championships. Current title holder Tony Martin was absent but Wiggins put the best part of a minute into Fabian Cancellara and more into third place man Phinney. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief that Wiggins has finally hit form, but for VCSE it’s more important that he looks motivated again. Vincenzo Nibali was very much in training mode, dropped on the climbs and reportedly focusing on the world championships only. For Nibali the Vuelta will be a chance to ride into form for Florence at the end of the season.

The overall? A win for Peter Weening of Orica Green Edge who overcame Riblon’s seconds advantage with the time trailing equivalent of winning ugly. His winning ride lacked any souplesse but was at least effective; he took the victory by 13 seconds.

Omega Pharma for GC? 

As the cycling ‘transfer window’ opens the first team to get riders to put pen to paper was Omega Pharma. The much rumoured move from Sky of Rigoberto Uran has been confirmed and the debate about what kind of team Omega Pharma want to be has re-started.  This has been fuelled further by the (again much trailed) signings of Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw to bolster Mark Cavendish’s lead out train. VCSE’s take would be that Uran will be given more support in the grand tours that Cavendish misses. That said, Uran is probably better able than most to freelance in the mountains and if the plan is to get more Omega Pharma jerseys at the sharp end of the peloton on the climbs it’s probably a good move for team and rider.

On the other end of the scale one of the two world tour teams at risk of not appearing in 2014 Euskatel have told their riders to start looking for new teams. With 25% unemployment in Spain it was inevitable that the team would be at risk of losing their funding and a less than stellar set of results has probably sped up the decision to pull the plug. All the same it’s hard to see a team folding when they could kept afloat for a fraction of the amount that Real Madrid are thinking of paying for one player this summer.

After Katusha were reinstated to the world tour after their CAS appeal earlier in the season losing one team from the world tour would not have been too much of an issue if a second rank team was ready to move up in their place. The team most likely, swiss registered IAM have said they don’t intend to make the jump, perhaps burnt by the fact that Fabian Cancellara has re signed with Trek. If no teams make the jump it means another wild card place for the grand tours and the potential for some of the continental squads to get invitations to the second rank races also. If this means that the default invitations of only Italian or French teams to the Giro and Tour can be avoided it’s probably no bad thing. The loss of Euskatel and possibly Vacansoleil also will be felt hardest by the riders and support staff and their families.

Ride London  

No doubt the organisers of the Ride London professional race would like the event to become a regular fixture on the world tour. Run a couple of hours after the 20,000 rider had begun to cross the finish line in The Mall the was a decent sprinkling of teams including Sky, Cannondale and Garmin. With the BBC showing the start and finish of the race live the ‘big name’ being used to batter the casual viewer into showing interest was Peter Sagan. How the Beeb’s commentators would have loved a Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish to have been on the start list. Cycling gets next to no exposure on the BBC but its a shame that the editorial line is always pitched so low with no opportunity missed to mention the Olympics or someone that viewers may have heard of. In fairness the BBC deserved a ‘Chapeau!’ for showing a decent highlights package of the women’s Crit from Saturday night. Laura Trott continued her rivalry with Hannah Barnes in the sprint finish winning the race to make it all square in head to heads between the two this year.

The men’s race was fairly typical for a bumpy parcours; a breakaway that was never allowed to get so far ahead and a bunch finish. The script wasn’t followed as Sagan rode an anonymous race; the only time he appeared on camera was getting bottles from the team car. The circuits of Leith Hill were also largely processional, with the real digs coming on the single ascent of Box Hill. David Millar’s attempt to get another group across to the break was drowned out by the apathy of his companions. When it came to sprint, Parliment Square proved to be too much of a bottle neck for some teams leaving FDJ, who had shown their jersey in the break all day, to be the best organised for the finish. Arnaud Demare took the win with teammates in close attendance.

The men’s race inspires some international interest in the event. The close links between Ride London and the London Marathon would suggest that the format will continue with a professional event book ending the main event which is the sportive. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who take part in the Marathon it’s hard to see why a ceiling of 20,000 was put on the sportive. With 80,000 applying for a ballot place it does seem strange that more riders aren’t able to take part. Obviously the infrastructure needed to close roads through the capital and the Surrey stockbroker belt costs but given that the Marathon is able to support the ‘fun runner’ element surely something could be done to allow more cyclists of all standards to take part next year. This year everyone was given the same start location with any riders struggling to make the 4.00pm cut off directed onto short cuts back to the capital. Perhaps in true sportive style a shorter route could be incorporated next year.

Final thoughts. How many capital cities dedicate their centre’s to mass participation cycling events and professional road races on the same day? Chapeau to London and the organisers. I expect the sportive will be massively over subscribed when registration opens later this month. Last year the BBC showed an hours highlights programme for the men’s and women’s world championship road races. This in the same year as the first ever British Tour de France win and the Olympics. As the BBC programming closed today they announced that they would be showing this years world championships live. For dedicated fans of the sport the low brow coverage maybe frustrating, but we should all celebrate the increased coverage the sport is now getting on the national broadcaster.

VCSE wraps up the 2013 Giro

Giro stages 20 & 21 – Silandro to Tre Cime di Lavaredo & Riese Pio X to Brescia 

One of the recurring themes of this years Giro, if not the entire season so far, has been the (unseasonal) weather. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised anyone for it to have snowed in the Alps and the Dolomites, but heavy snowfall in the run up to and morning of Stage 19 saw its cancellation. With earlier stages effected by the route changing or being shortened, losing what had promised to be one of, if not the most iconic climbing stage was a massive blow. Probably the only rider in the peloton unhappy about getting an additional rest day was Vincenzo Nibali. Although he had dominated the second time trial, the chances to demonstrate his superiority via a stage win shrank by half with the loss of the Stelvio and Gavia from the race.

RCS wouldn’t have asked for the story that did come to dominate the day instead; Danilo Di Luca’s positive EPO test announced at almost the same time as stage getting cancelled. Di Luca was without a team at the start of the season and the was only 72 hours between the test being carried out and the announcement that he would be riding for Vini Fantini at the Giro. His attempts to animate the race, if not pick up a stage win had fizzled out pretty quickly so an immediate conclusion to draw was; doping to what advantage? Di Luca himself was pretty tight lipped. There was talk of ‘B’ samples to be checked. His team were more decisive, sacking him on the spot. The comments, from those members of the peloton that chose to, was (at least) unequivocal in condemming Di Luca as an example of once a doper always a doper. On a scientific note, the positive test was carried in a German lab where  rumour has it that micro dosing of EPO can be established. If this is fact rather than speculation it raises a couple of interesting points. One, in the doping ‘arms race’, are the testers edging ahead of the cheats finally? Two, was this a rider of a previous generation unable to race without taking performance enhancing drugs or not sophisticated enough to avoid detection?

After losing the previous days stage and the dread of a doping story the likelihood was that the organisers would have run any kind of stage the following day. To circumvent the worst of the weather the stage stayed in the valleys before taking in the climb to Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Although this resulted in 90% of the stage feeling pretty dull, the final kilometres more than made up for it. In fact, the route climbed steadily for most of the day, although the gradient was barely noticeable most of the time. As the km’s clicked up the temperature began to fall and the riders began to add the layers. The contrast between the conditions at the start of the stage and at the finish line gave the appearance of two separate races held on two separate days.

English: Vincenzo Nibali, winner of the 75th V...
Vincenzo Nibali in his first Grand Tour win – the 2010 Vuelta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Vincenzo Nibali this was his last chance to cement, barring accidents, overall victory with a stage win. While the previous years winner, the now departed Ryder Hesjedal was recognised as a great champion, his win had been achieved without an individual stage success. For Nibali, the sense was a stage win would provide the required backdrop. His Astana teammates, who got stronger as the race went on got him into a great position for the final climb, emphasised by their own high placings at the finish. As the weather closed in, Nibali just seemed to get stronger with only one of his GC rivals, Rigoberto Uran who finished nearly 20 seconds down, in touch at the finish. Cadel Evans had looked broken on the stage, although he later cited a mechanical that caused him to give up his second place overall to Uran. It was a good day all round for Colombian riders with Carlos Betancur and Fabio Duarte finishing 1,2,3 (in fact 4, 3, 2 respectively) behind Nibali. He could smile through the cold as he took part in three separate presentations (he also took over the points jersey from Mark Cavendish) knowing that he had all but won the 2013 Giro.

The final stage of the Giro, unlike the Tour, is not run neutralised. With the destination of most of the jerseys resolved however, the peloton seemed happy enough to cruise into Brescia on the last day. No champagne or even prosecco was in evidence although there were some pizza deliveries being made from the team cars. Vincenzo Nibali was resplendent in pink, happy to up the quotient to socks and helmet if not to make any changes to his bike which stayed resolutely white and blue throughout the race. Carlos Betancur had ridden into the young riders jersey the previous day, which left just the Maglia Rosso points jersey up for grabs.

Mark Cavendish had been in and out of the points lead for the three weeks of the race. We had touched on the difficulties for a sprinter to win the points competition at the Giro in our Giro preview, going so far as to say that the challenge would probably see Cavendish abandon before the mountains. A look at his rivals for the jersey indicated the challenge; Nibali, Evan, Betancur etc. If he could take both intermediate sprints on the final stage,  Cavendish would be back in the lead and virtually assured of taking the Maglia Ross0. A flash of the legendary Cavendish temper ahead of the second sprint. As the peloton began their laps of the Brescia circuit a lone Andrioni rider made a break. Cavendish having reached a gentlemen’s agreement with Nibali that he (Nibali) wouldn’t race for the points, shot off in angry pursuit. Cue much gesticulation and no doubt profanity as attempts to marshal the recalcitrant wild card rider back to the group, Cavendish forced to sprint hard for the line.

On the second lap, another Cavendish sprint and general cussedness as the line was crossed; what was the cause of all of his frustration. The guilty culprit appeared to be the roadbook, certainly Omega Pharm at least didn’t appear to know at what distance the second intermediate fell. All of this was forgetten fortunately when it really mattered as Cavendish easily overhauled the much depleted from three weeks of hard racing sprint field. Elia Viviani probably the only recognised first line sprinter left to rival Cavendish at the death.

And so to the celebrations. Nibali emotional, yet dignified also. Hard to appear so in the hot pink throne that the organisers placed centre stage for him. Cavendish all smiles, 2012 avenged and one a select few riders to have won the points competition in all three grand tours. Betancur, winner of the young riders jersey a great prospect for the future, but here and now celebrating a relatively unsupported result; AG2R finishing the race with only four other riders.

Giro 2013 – postscript 

VCSE always tipped Vincenzo Nibali for the GC ahead of Bradley Wiggins. The spike in the popularity of cycling as a sport in the UK is largely fueled by Wiggins stellar 2012. It’s unfortunate, but somewhat inevitable also that this also polarises a lot of the coverage the sport gets in the UK mainstream media. It’s a good thing that, for example, the BBC covered the Giro the same way it would cover the Tour this year. It’s less positive that the lens through which everything got covered was Wiggins shaped. In fairness VCSE gave up on the daily BBC podcast for just this reason after about stage 4 or 5, so if the tone changed; mea culpa. The focus on Sir Bradley, as the BBC insisted on calling him, across the majority of the media in the UK meant that the reasons to celebrate British success (of which there were plenty) felt airbrushed from coverage more concerned with Wiggins descending difficulties.

The VCSE argument against a Wiggins victory in this years Giro was based on his relative to 2012 poor form coming into the race. Compared to the previous year where he had won pretty much everything he entered, in 2013 Wiggins didn’t have so much as a podium place to celebrate. Sure, things didn’t always go his way; the mechanical on the queen stage of the Trentino, his last race before the Giro a good example. The only crumb on offer was the line offered from Sky that his ‘numbers’ were “better than last year” or that he was climbing better than ever.

With the benefit of hindsight Wiggins climbing wasn’t the issue. There were some surface cracks in the Sky gameplan when their team leader seemed to lack protection that would have prevented him losing time in the early stages due to other riders accidents. Things fell apart on stage 7 with Wiggins inoccuous looking slide on the descent into Pescara. In the wet conditions that seemed to become the default for the rolling stages, Wiggins  remounted but proceeded at a snails pace. Nibali had suffered a slide of his own on the same descent, but the difference in the speed in which he remounted and then got on with things compared to his then joint GC favourite was palpable.

Sky would have expected to go into the first TT with Wiggins positioned to take the GC lead. Although the parcours was not particularly friendly to him, his testing abilities should have given Wiggins the platform to put time into his rivals. Instead, he suffered another mechanical and didn’t gel with his replacement bike, a completely different model. In spite of his bad luck and difficulties with his second bike this was perhaps Wiggins high point in the race. After the inevitable time loss at the first time check he recorded the fastest time over the second (longer) section. Although denied the stage win, Wiggins was back in contention. Unfortunately, the following day the rain was back and with it his descending woes. At one point Wiggins was out the back, but a massive turn from the Sky diesel domestiques got him back to Nibali’s group by the finish. Stage 10, the first summit finish was the big test to see Wiggins could hold onto Nibali who had gone into the lead after the TT. As things turned out Wiggins lost more time on the stage won by teammate Rigoberto Uran. With ramps of 20% in places VCSE’s view is that Wiggins performance on the stage was pretty strong for a rider who climbs at a steady rate, rather than with explosive accelerations. He lost time on the steepest sections, but was coming back at the finish, certainly fairing better on the climb than some his rivals.

Wiggins didn’t lose time the following day, but by the end of stage 12 he was gone. A difficult day where he lost time in heavy rain and the virus he had been suffering from getting worse led to Wiggins departure and Rigoberto Uran’s elevation to team leader. Uran had already leapfrogged his erstwhile team leader on GC at this point and he had unwittingly pointed to what would become the Wiggins narrative following his withdrawl when he (Uran) described himself as “..not like Froome”. There had been speculation before the Giro about what Wiggins would do at the Tour. Wiggins had fueled some of this himself when he declared in an interview that he wanted to lead Sky at the Tour and defend his title. In the week between the end of the Giro and the start of the Dauphine the story rolls on.

Vincenzo Nibali would probably be the first to admit his overall victory would have been enhanced by a fit Bradley Wiggins. Some may feel his achievement was also diminished by the enforced route changes and even cancellation of one stage. This would do him a disservice. Nibali looked the class of the GC field from the outset and while his team looked to have rode into some good form by the end of the race to support him during the final days, Nibali is the kind of rider who is well capable of looking after himself. His next target, supposedly is the Vuelta a race he has won before. Last years Vuelta top 3 were missing from the Giro, but if Nibali can maintain this form he should be a genuine contender for Spain’s grand tour.

The weather and viruses that swept through the peloton caused an attrition rate of nearly 20% including defending champion Ryder Hesjedal. This years Giro was a race to be endured rather than enjoyed. An ambitious and exciting parcours that included climbs of the Telegraphe and Galibier in France as well as the Stelvio and Gavia deserved to be raced and will hopefully feature again, although probably not next year. The doping story was an unfortunate reminder of the darker side of Italian racing, but the way it was handled by the organisers and the effected team gives confidence of the new attitude to drugs in the sport.

There was more British success with Alex Dowsett’s victory in the first TT. Dowsett moved to Movistar from Sky at the beginning of the year and his new team could justifiably claim to be the team of the Giro with stage wins for Giovanni Visconti and Benat Intxausti also.

Bradley Wiggins departure from the Giro spoiled the plans of much of the UK medias editorial which missed an arguably greater British achievement at the race. Mark Cavendish took 5 stage wins on the way to becoming only the fifth rider to win the points classification in all three grand tours. He had to overcome the equal weighting for points finishes on each stage in the Giro as well as getting himself over the climbs. Bradley Wiggins will always be the first British winner of the Tour de France but our greatest stage racer is Mark Cavendish.

In the Pink – VCSE’s Racing Digest #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Days of Dunkirk

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

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

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

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

Giro a distraction for Wiggo?

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

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

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

Cavendish photo –