Curses! – VCSE’s Racing Digest #18

Finally! - Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12
Finally! – Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12

He got away with it; despite those pesky kids! (apologies for the Scooby Do reference). After losing out by a tyre’s width to Zdenek Stybar last week Philippe Gilbert finally managed to do what has so far eluded him this season and win something in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. Gilbert had shown real class last week by not having a dig at Stybar who hadn’t exactly worked for his win, so it did feel like there was some karma chi love in the air for the Belgian in Tarragona. Staying with the whole ‘curse’ theme, the guy that Gilbert beat to the line was erstwhile Norwegian champ Edvald Boasson Hagen. Sky, who give the impression of a team that have pretty much given up on sprinters have allocated (or should that be allowed) EBH a bit of a roving brief for the flatter stages at the Vuelta. This was also the case at the Tour and if the opportunity presents itself then Boasson Hagen can freelance a bit in search of a win. Gilbert of course had other ideas, but he needed to bury himself to first catch and then overhaul the Sky rider at the line. It says a lot about the last gap nature of the BMC team principal’s win that there were no time gaps shown for the first 40 riders over the line.

Philippe Gilbert’s win is probably one of the biggest victories that BMC will take this year. The team have shown more form in recent months with only Cadel Evans podium at the Giro as the early season highlight. Since the Tour we have seen a return to form for Thor Hushovd in addition to Taylor Phinney’s maiden win and Tejay van Garderen’s second US victory of the season at the USA Pro Challenge. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta, the uphill finish to Montjuic in Barcelona and of course the world champs in Valkenburg offered a similar profile. BMC have thrown their efforts in this years race behind Gilbert and it’s clear that he is great form in Spain. In addition to last weeks near miss he also featured in yesterdays stage to Andorra finishing 15th having been in second place at one point on the final climb. There’s talk now of a possible defence of his world champions jersey but VCSE suspects the course will not suit him as much as current Vuelta leader Vincenzo Nilbali or Chris Froome.

VCSE’s own curse of hyperbole struck this week as the racing has felt a little lacklustre after the excitement of the first week. A rest day followed by the individual TT probably didn’t help things. The TT saw Chris Horner lose the lead to Nibali again, although this time the Italian was happier about taking it over with the prospect of some heavy mountain stages at the weekend. Nibali rode a decent time trial as did GC rival Nico Roche who was a similar vein of confidence to Gilbert. Horner was the big loser on GC and while pre TT he might have seen the benefit of being able to see everyone else’s times on the stage itself he was the rider who was stopping everyone from being able to go home. Part of this was down to the contest for the win being decided by two riders well down on GC; Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. In the sparring between the rivals for the world TT champs this was a convincing victory for Cancellara. Although some are now questioning Martin’s solo break training ride as not quite the best practice for defending his world crown VCSE predicts that the German will probably hold sway in Italy.

Friday’s stage was likely to be the sprinters last chance of a win before the race entered the high mountains. Unfortunately for them the peloton did not get organised in time to chase down a quality and numerous break away that included Bauke Mollema, Benet Intxausti and Michele Scarponi. Unfortunately for the break they seemed to forget just who and how many were in their escape and as the course wound its way through a series of bends on the way to the line Argos Shimano domestique Warren Barguil slipped off the front. As he dug for victory the remainder of the break were busy looking at one another and metaphorically saying “No.. I insist.. You go first..”. End result a win for the 21 year old Barguil. By the time Mollema and co’ had realised the error the damage was done and the victory sealed.

The first of a double header of high mountain stages came on Saturday with the race due to cross the highest point of this years Vuelta over the Port de Envalira and into a summit finish in Andorra. Bad weather had closed in earlier than expected and Vincenzo Nibali was asked how he would cope. He described conditions “..like everyday in the Giro” but the stage took a heavy toll of riders with 14 abandoning including Cannondale’s Ivan Basso who was dropped and then succumbed to the cold. Such are the difficulties for the host broadcaster that much of what would have been seen as prime stage for TV was lost due to low cloud over the climbs, the Envalira being described to pictures from a fixed camera at the finish line.

When live pictures were restored we were greeted by the prospect of a remarkable solo win by Cannondale rider Daniele Ratto. Just 23 Ratto joins the list of first time winners from this years Vuelta, that if nothing else highlight the unpredictable nature of the race. Ratto’s face was a picture as he crossed the line and savoured the win, particularly as he made the final kilometre look incredibly hard such was his exhaustion by this stage. Alejandro Valverde who had lost key lieutenant Pablo Lastras the day before was dropped at one stage but he staged an amazing fight back on the last climb that saw him overhaul many of his GC rivals who had been shelled, including Nico Roche. At the head of the leaders group it was Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali going toe to toe. At one stage Horner looked as if he could put some time into Nibali but as the line approached it was the Italian who was stronger gaining a time bonus as putting a couple of seconds into the American. Horner definitely had the appearance of the one who blinked first and with similar weather forecasted for today’s race it was going to be interesting to see if he had anything left to throw at the race leader.

As it was the weather didn’t do much and the leaders played nicely with one another. With a finish across the border in France it was a French rider on a French team who took the win; FDJ’s Alexandre Geniez. After the televisual anticlimax of the previous days stage, today’s didn’t offer a lot of drama either. Nibali at this point seems to be only looking at Horner and it was interesting to hear the American interviewed confirming that he is more anxious about attacks from Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde. Horner didn’t look troubled today, but neither did he look able to put in an attack that would unsettle Nibali. Nico Roche gained some time back on the stage and is now a few seconds of 5th after tumbling out of his podium place yesterday.

As the race enters its final week there’s another day to come in the Pyrenees before the second and final rest day. The penultimate stage on Saturday on the Angliru may yet perform the task that the race organisers always wish and decide who ultimately wins the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.

So close – VCSE’s Racing Digest #17

Vuelta a Espana week 1 

For a rider who suggested he might use the final grand tour of the year as preparation for the world championship Vicenzo Nibali spent the first week of the Vuelta as a somewhat reluctant race leader. The Shark had indicated that he felt he had a strong Astana team supporting him and that he was feeling good ahead of the race, but he was still adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Astana’s victory in the team time trial was still something of a surprise though. Radioshack and Omega Pharma were being marshalled by Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin respectively. If the rumours are to be believed Cancellara is targeting both the road and TT world’s and he has been showing more of an interest in TT’s since returning to racing after the spring classics. With Astana winning the question was who would be donning the red leaders jersey. Anyone but Nibali was the answer, although a rider of his skill wouldn’t be seen obviously hitting the brakes to avoid crossing the line first.

English: Nicolas Roche (IRE) at stage 17 of th...
Vuelta stage winner and wk 1 leader Nico Roche in AG2R days(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first week has thrown up some stage wins that the neutral fan can enjoy. Leopold Konig leading wild card invitee’s Net App Endura almost snatched victory on stage two only to be overhauled in the closing metres by Katusha’s Dani Moreno. Moreno in turn was caught at the moment the final climb leveled out by Saxo Bank rider Nicolas Roche. Moving to Saxo from AG2R caused many people to question the motivation in this son of a grand tour winner. Roche has seemed happy riding in support of Alberto Contador at this years Tour and he appears to have come out of that race in better shape than Saxo’s nominal team leader for the Vuelta Roman Kreuziger. While Kreuziger hasn’t really started this week Roche has collected jersey’s as well as stage wins wearing the combined and KOM jerseys before taking the ultimate prize of the leaders red jersey ahead of today’s stage from Nibali.

Nibali wished the leader was anyone but him earlier in the week. Chris Horner who took over the GC after winning stage 3 was upset to find himself handing the jersey back to Nibali after stage 4. Nibali’s response was that the Radioshack rider was “..welcome to it”. Horner’s win proved that he wasn’t the only ‘old man’ in Radioshack colours that could win a stage.* The sprint stages over the next three days were quiet for the GC but anything but for the viewers. Actually, that’s not entirely true; the stage 7 finish was good, stage 6 will live long in the memory. The curse of the rainbow jersey seems well settled on Philippe Gilbert’s shoulders and with this years championship imminent he remains without a win. He probably would have had one after staging a late break in the last few kilometres on Friday but for Zdenek Stybar his co-escapee. Stybar opportunistically set off in pursuit of Gilbert and after doing a few turns to ensure their break ‘stuck’ left the hard work to the world champion. As things stood the gap on the line was a tyre’s width and you were left with the sense that if Stybar had taken his turn Gilbert might have won. He was gracious in defeat, philosophical even and that elevates him in VCSE’s opinion.

As exciting as Gilbert’s near miss was Tony Martin’s result the day before is probably the greatest 7th place pro cycling will ever see. Martin had set out to achieve a solo break on stage 6 as a very public training ride for the world TT championship. As the end of the stage approached his lead had fallen to a matter of seconds as the sprinters teams lined up to lead out their fast men. Then the lead was going back up; Martin riding between 65-70 KPH was average 5-10 KPH faster than the peloton. It was out of the seat stuff as Martin summoned his last reserves of energy to go for the line. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that riders should never look back and it’s more likely that Martin was already so far into the red that he didn’t have anything left to counter the onrushing sprinters. Of course, they were never going to pull up before the line and let Martin have the glory of what would have been one of the most incredible stage wins ever seen. Respect came later, for the riders like actual stage winner Michael Morkov there was their moment in the sun to enjoy first. Martin later revealed he received more messages of support, condolence.. whatever following this result than any of his world championships. Check it out for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Konig, remember him? The Net App team leader had his revenge on Saturday. With a near 1000 metre ascent to the finish even Nibali struggled on the final climb of the stage. Net App had ‘done a Sky’ on the front of the bunch all day but it was a question of timing for Konig after his stage 2 attempt had been squashed by Moreno. The Katusha rider had a dig here too, but Konig had the legs to take a major win for his division two outfit to go with his last stage victory at this years Tour of California. Nibali’s difficulties handed the race lead to Roche and capped a week that even he would not have dared to dream about at the start of the race. With Kreuziger picked as leader following his strong showing at the Tour it’s clear it wasn’t part of Saxo’s plan either.

Moreno keeps popping up though. Today’s stage with a uphill finish through town of the kind that Joaquim Rodriguez specialises in. With a gradient of 27% in places it was Moreno who powered ahead of his Katusha team leader and into the race lead as the race enters it’s second week. Added to his stage win earlier in the week Saxo might not be the only team switching priorities.