Discs & Doping – VCSE’s Racing Digest #44

The season is already a couple of months old and we’re several races in already but this week has felt like the start of the new term proper. The first couple of stages of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico give the commentators and colour men the chance to ruminate on the riders showing early form and look ahead to the monuments in the coming weeks and slightly further away the Giro. That’s the plan anyway. The peloton and the viewer wants to get played in gently before the GC gets decided over the course of the weekend. Things went awry for some of the key players on the first stage of Paris Nice as the weather intervened and caused time gaps that re-wrote individual’s game plans, Richie Porte just one of many reduced to stage hunting from then on. In Tirreno we saw a whole team derailed, not by the conditions this time. Sky riding with dual leaders in Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas lost time on the team time trial as their exotic tri spoke wheels wilted in the spring sunshine.

Not the ideal start for riders looking to put down a form marker for Milan San Remo or the grand tours perhaps but it added an additional ingredient to a dish that I always look forward to. With the possible exception of Poland the week long stage races that follow the grand tours just don’t engage me in the way that Paris Nice, Tirreno or Itzulia can. I missed so much of last season as far as catching a stage or one day race ‘live’ was concerned, although so watching this week has felt like the end of Lent and I’m finally able to tick into the good stuff again.

Paris Nice and Tirreno serve up fairly meagre rations if you’re looking for a grand tour primer with only one or two days designed with the climbers in mind. There’s normally enough on the bone for a GC rider to claim the overall but if the queen stage does succumb to the weather then you end up with results like last year’s Tirreno where Greg Van Avermaet ended up with Neptune’s trident. The one rider who I could imagine overcoming the grand tour specialists without needing rain to stop play is Peter Sagan. With two stages remaining Sagan already has two of the proceeding ones chalked up. On Sunday he managed to stay with Thomas and race leader to Nairo Quintana to take the second. Mark Cavendish (fairly anonymous in the same race as I write) may grab more of the headlines if he matches Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage wins record but Sagan has to be the closest we have to The Cannibal in today’s peloton. With Cancellara out of the picture I can see Sagan really  dominating the next few years of classics racing even if he’ll never approach Merckx for all round ability. Thing is though I resent Sagan’s apparent superiority. If he’s made the final selection I find myself frantically scanning the other riders, carrying out a mental tick box assessment of who might be capable of beating him to the line. A couple of weeks ago, the ‘opening weekend’ of Het Nieuswblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Sagan inevitably had been there at the death, winning the latter and placing second to Van Avermaet the previous day. I’m not quite at the point where I can’t find any joy in a Sagan victory, I just prefer the unpredictability, the ‘not knowing’ when the favourite is missing.

If there’s such a thing in cycling and if it’s not ironic to bestow it on him Alberto Comtador was the moral winner of Paris Nice. He’d ridden into contention during the week and was snapping at Sergio Henao’s heels after the Sky rider had assumed the yellow on Saturday. Henao wouldn’t have been my obvious choice for team principal but with Thomas and Landa in Italy he got the nod. Paris Nice isn’t a race that Chris Froome tends to do, although he has cropped up for Tirreno in the past. Froome involvement in this year’s race was limited to selfies as the peloton swept past on his local training routes. Contador was gracious in defeat (by two.. count them.. seconds!) to a rider that I can’t imagine leading Sly in a grand tour anytime soon. Fair enough, that Henao caught up enough to snatch the yellow back from him but I don’t think it would have happened if the peloton hadn’t worked as hard as it did to chase down Contador’s breakaway.

With Froome laser focused on the Tour again Sky have to ‘make do’ with someone else to lead the team and there’s something of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ element to the odd appearance he makes on social media. Make no mistake though, even when he isn’t racing Froome is the principal rider on Team Sky in the eyes of the fans and the media. As the teams own Watergate has rumbled on since last year’s initial TUE expose Froome has been conspicuous by his absence particularly in a week that saw more than half of his teammates come out publicly in support of Dave Brailsford. A combination of published and leaked reports on the TUE saga and investigations into the culture at British Cycling had led to a swathe of opinion that Brailsford needed to go. A rumour in the press that a rider within Sky had said that Brailsford should resign triggered the votes of confidence voiced on social media by Thomas and others. A follow up piece in the papers listed the riders who hadn’t spoken up for their boss. While some were pretty much invisible, such is the irregularity of their social media presence Froome was an obvious omission.* He has shared his view about the TUE saga once or twice. Never one to miss an opportunity to stick the knife into Wiggins he had been as pointed in his criticism as someone who has also ‘benefited’ from a TUE can be. In a tetchy interview recorded during a training camp earlier in the year Froome had also made clear his feelings that Brailsford should be the one with the explaining to do. Going for his fourth TDF title Froome won’t appreciate the distraction if the situation has been resolved by the summer. The inflated media prescence and the partisan nature of the crowds could prove to be an unwelcome distraction if the story refuses to go away. So was he the source of the ‘Brailsford must go’ rumour. In the absence of anything to the contrary it’s tempting to think he might have been. There doesn’t appear to be any doubt that Sky is Brailsford’s team rather than Froome’s but the rider can be characterised as someone who does what’s best for him so it might be tempting to imagine a world where doping questions disappear along with a Brailsford departure. Will Brailsford actually depart is another question entirely. Right at this moment I think not but further revelations might change that and the story shows no sign of going away. In the end it may prove to be ‘noises off’ from the sponsor (notably silent so far) that forces the issue rather than any press clamour that ends the fairytale.

While Sky could celebrate another overall victory in Paris Nice the ‘wheels coming off’ was the perfect phrase to sum up their situation in Tirreno. Pride was somewhat restored by Thomas taking a stage and he’ll finish high on GC albeit a long way off Nairo Quintana. In Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago another Sky rider appeared to fall victim to another bit of new technology in the peloton. The introduction of disc brakes is the irresistible force currently buffeting the immovable object of (most of) the riders. New to Sky this year Owain Doull has a gold medal from Rio and some impressive showings in bunch sprints last season under his belt as he becomes the latest prospect hoping to prosper on the Death Star. Doull had a coming together with Marcel Kittel in the final of a stage and sparked another ‘discs are dangerous’ debate when he suggested Kittel’s disc had sliced open his shoe in the ensuing crash. In the aftermath it was pretty conclusively proven that it the only way Kittel’s disc could have come anywhere near Doull’s shoe would have been if Kittel had been on Doull’s left rather than his right and travelling backwards at the time. As this truth was still getting its (ahem) boots on the anti disc faction had already dished up several versions of a potential disc rotor induced end of days.

The problem for the disc brake lobby, i.e the bike companies is that the majority of the riders just don’t want to ride them. I’m not convinced by the safety argument but as no one seems to want to call the pros out on stories like Doull’s or the other disc / not disc crash in last year’s Paris Roubaix the ‘alternative fact’ that disc brakes are too dangerous to be raced is allowed to gain currency. Maybe Doull and whoever that Movistar domestique was that crashed in the Arenberg last year genuinely feel their injuries were caused by discs but the evidence would suggest that disc brakes are some way down the list of potential dangers. Maybe there’s a ‘Rules’ / Velominati element to all of this. Perhaps it’s an old school thing like not wearing white bibs or the correct sock length. There’s little point in trying to enforce discs on the peloton but it will be annoying the hell out of Specialized that their master plan to have us all shelling out an extra few hundred large for discs might be derailed by the rider lobby. So far it’s only Quick Step and Cannondale who have really pushed the disc thing this season. Tom Boonen has done a puff piece about how it would be ‘stupid’ to ignore the benefits (smart guy Tom) and Cannondale had the whole team on discs in Andulucia and had disc equipped TT bikes at Tirreno. At least Sky couldn’t blame the disintegrating wheels on discs.

* Rather like my last post this one came together over a couple of days. On Monday Froome released a statement ‘backing’ Brailsford. I only read one report rather than his full statement but based on the quotes lifted for the article it didn’t sound as if Froome was offering unequivocal support. 

How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

It’s the start of a new season; time to rekindle the romance? 

I’m writing my first post of 2017 (and my first since last year’s Tour) on the first day of the Dubai Tour. Dubai marks the return of live television coverage and despite its relatively short history it’s the probably the strongest after the demise of Qatar and the indifference that is shown towards the (more varied) Tour of Oman. Dubai benefits from slick presentation by organisers RCS with coverage that lasts long enough for the commentators to sift through the off-season stories before the inevitable sprint finish.

The fact that Dubai has survived is likely to have been helped by each stage being shown live on Eurosport. Qatar and Oman had both been around longer but the former wasn’t shown outside of ‘local’ host channels and Oman’s highlights only package has steadily eroded to the point that it’s buried one or even two days later around midnight. As an armchair fan (who rides a bit too) having Eurosport is pretty much essential if you want to watch road racing on television. With the possible exception of the GP Samyn I can’t think of many races that don’t benefit from getting shown in high definition (OK maybe I don’t need to see the delights of the petrol station at the finish of Liege Bastogne Liege either). ITV continue the C4 legacy with much the same team and cover the Tour live (and in recent years the Dauphine) but other than the Tour of Britain and a highlights package of the Vuelta that’s it. Eurosport gives you the spring classics, the Giro, Tour, Vuelta and pretty much everything in between.

The reason I’m banging on about this is that it slipped out via my social media feed last week that Sky (that’s Sky as in Team Sky, home of 3 x Tour winner Chris Froome fame) are threatening to drop Eurosport from their channels as of 1st Feb*. So potentially I’m looking at my 200+ days of live cycling becoming.. er.. well 1 day actually. Now it’s possible that everything has been resolved today and I’ll tune in tomorrow and find stage 2 of the Dubai Tour there in all of its glory. In all of the hoo hah about Donald Trump, Brexit and transfer deadline day a resolution that will see Sky continuing to show live cycling might have got lost in the ether. I have often wondered if Sky would see the success of their eponymous cycling team as a vehicle for taking over coverage of at least some of the marquee races. It seems a bit odd that they seem prepared to lose all of the free marketing that having Eurosport on their platform provides. Of course Sky have announced that their sponsorship of.. er Team Sky will not continue in perpetuity and their role as principal sponsor of British Cycling ended last year. Maybe, despite the success the team have achieved, Sky are falling out of love with cycling?

Pure speculation of course (isn’t that the preserve of the armchair fan?), but wouldn’t Sky be forgiven for feeling a little bit disenchanted with cycling after last year? Almost a seven year itch perhaps. There was quite a lot of things not to love about the sport last year and pretty much all of it originated from Sky and British Cycling. I’ve lost count of the times I thought ‘Wow, what a story. I ought to post something about that’ only for the next bit of news to emerge and the original story seems minor in comparison.

2016 Annus Horribilus 

The wheels started to come off just before the start of the Rio Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead had swept all before her in 2015, culminating in a rainbow jersey by winning the Worlds in Richmond. Her form had continued into 2016 and she was widely tipped as potential Gold Medal winner in the Olympic road race. Just before the team were due to depart for Brazil it emerged that Armitstead had missed three whereabouts tests. Ordinarily this would have resulted in an automatic suspension from competition, leaving aside the inevitable questions about why any athlete would miss three tests. However British Cycling accepted Armitstead’s justification for missing three tests in less than 12 months and she would be allowed to compete in Rio.

Naturally this provoked a pretty negative reaction from press, public and many of her fellow professionals. Women’s cycling has been painted as somehow immune from the potential use of PEDs, principally because it is even less secure than the men’s tour financially. What would be the point of doping it was suggested when so many teams struggle just to make the start line. No doubt aware of the need to protect the sports reputation against comparisons with the worst excesses of the men some of Armitstead’s rivals, notably her predecessor as world champion Pauline Ferrand Perrot, were incredulous that she had even missed one test. The UK media wasted no time in seeking the views of the senior British male Olympic cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins. He couldn’t understand how Armitstead had made such a foolish error either. No guilt was implied but Wiggins stressed how important it was to be ‘squeaky clean’ in all matters doping related. He might have cause to regret this himself later.

Continue reading How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

This is my first post since Roubaix way back in the spring. Since then I have changed jobs and i’m back working full time for the first time since I started the blog in 2013. Back then I spent the entire season watching any cycling I could ‘live’. I posted after every stage of the 2013 Giro whereas this year I didn’t do a single post about it. There have been a number of reasons for this; mostly a lack of time. I do think that you miss something following a race after the event. While many stages ‘caught’ live can be a complete bore there’s often a little thing that not everyone notices that underscores how the stage and / or race is won. There have been some changes to the schedule this year, both in terms of the calendar and the TV coverage that haven’t always been for the better. The Tour or Turkey was pretty much highlights only this year and that was a race that I enjoyed watching live. Then there’s the Tour of Poland that someone has decided would gain so much more from being scheduled to take place during the Tour de France!

Watching this years Tour I often found myself thinking that I ought to write about some of the things taking place. Cav’s yellow, GC teams invading the sprints, Froome’s panache, Sky NOT getting trolled for doping to mention just a few. I’ll get around to proof reading this review of the 2016 Tour but in the meantime…

Tour de France 2016

Signing off his review of the 2016 Tour de France and Chris Froome’s historic 3rd victory in the race David Millar said we should “..enjoy” Sky’s continuing dominance of the biggest race in cycling while it lasts. This sentiment seems to be widely held by most of the people on my social media timelines, but for this armchair pundit at least I think endure is more appropriate.

Tour de France 2016 winner – Chris Froome (yeah, I used this pic last year too

Don’t get me wrong; Sky have achieved a fourth maillot jaune in five years and that in itself is a fantastic achievement. But even if the Sky MO has evolved from the one dimensional approach employed to provide Bradley Wiggins his sole grand tour victory my heart sank when Froome assumed the race lead on stage on stage 8. Of course, only the most suspicious conspiracy theorist could suggest that Sky could have known in advance that Froome’s attack over the final climb on the stage would have resulted in him heading the GC for the remainder of the race.

Sky employed the same strategy during the Grand Depart and the early stages that had worked for them so well a year ago. A team made up of entirely of domestiques (no sprinting distractions here!) ensured that Froome was kept at the business end of the race even on sprint stages. A crash within the bunch on stage 1 led to some noises off from sprint patron (and ex Sky rider) Bernie Eisel among others criticising the GC teams for getting mixed up with the lead out trains long after the 3km cut off had been negotiated. I wonder if Mark Cavendish would have been quite so diplomatic about this particular strategy that Sky have led if he hadn’t been enjoying a renaissance and his first ever yellow jersey.

Froome was pretty much the highest place GC contender on anything that didn’t end up in a gallop before the stage into Luchon and his audacious wrong footing of his rivals over the Col de Peyresourde. Froome had departed the race when the Tour last visited the town in the Pyrenees in 2014. Chief rival that year Alberto Contador had crashed out too allowing his remaining Tinkoff teammates the opportunity to go for stage wins. Mick Rogers, in the break that day, waited until he was on the descent into town before attacking and then time trialling away for the stage win. Sky’s tactic was for Froome to attack the KOM on the penultimate climb. As the TV commentary speculated about Froome’s desire to take the polka dot jersey in addition to yellow he struck out before reaching the top of the Peyresourde and gained vital yards as Nairo Quintana fumbled with his bidon and looked around in vain for Alejandro Valverde.

If Sky can be accused of riding conservatively in defence of the GC the same can be levelled at the teams of the rival GC teams when it came to attacking. The relative form of the other pre-race favourites when the came under the spotlight can be debated further but the point at which Chris Froome won his third Tour came in those first few hundred metres of the descent into Luchon. There are many ironies in Froomes victory, not least of which is that he has shown spontaneity while his team have been anything but. It shouldn’t be discounted that there wasn’t a single stage where Froome had to go head to head with his rivals without riders like Wout Poels and Sergio Henao first administering a metaphorical beating to other teams domestiques. Despite this I don’t believe that Sky’s strength in depth was the deciding factor. One of the ex pros (I can’t remember who) invited onto ITV’s coverage of the final stage commented that we might have seen a different race if Alberto Contador hadn’t abandoned after struggling through the first week after a crash on stage 1. Maybe, maybe not. Contador’s luck was particularly bad, at least Richie Porte made the finish (and 5th overall) but he was rueing the loss of time due to a puncture in the final km’s on stage 2. Quintana, fell a long way short of pre-race expectations; a ‘virus’ was conjured up at one point to try to explain his inability to challenge Froome. Movistar’s much vaunted double team of Quintana and Valverde had no answer for Froome and Sky this time and other hopefuls were even further off the pace.

There had been speculation before the race that Astana could see a 21st century version of the rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the 1986 Tour with Vincenzo Nibali in the Badger role to Fabio Aru’s Lemond. I could use a couple of hundred words explaining how that worked out but rather than waste your time I’ll summarise; it didn’t happen. Nibali looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than the Tour and Aru was no more than a bit part player.

Yet another team supposedly offering a spicy inter team rivalry ahead of the race was BMC. Richie Porte was riding in support of Tejay Van Gardaren or joint leader depending on who you listened to or if it was a Friday or something. Porte was resigned to working for Tejay even though he was the much stronger rider until his ‘leader’ fell off the radar by which time the most the Porte could hope for was a podium place. If BMC have learnt anything from this years Tour it should be that Tejay Van Gardaren will never be a grand tour winner. Stage 2 puncture notwithstanding it would have been interesting to see if Porte could have challenged Froome if Tejay had been riding for him. One for 2017 perhaps.

Quintana ultimately did enough to get onto the podium, knocking Orica’s Adam Yates off the third step. Yates is not altogether a surprise package but his achievement suggests that there is a potential heir to Chris Froome outside of the Sky machine. Yate’s demotion may have robbed him of a podium place but he was still the winner of the young rider classification and can take some comfort that his time loss was a result of a mechanical rather than a loss of form in the final week.

If not many would have predicted two ‘home’ riders in the top 5 on GC, few people would have said that AG2R would have two riders on the Tour de France podium in three years. Romain Bardet delivered a French stage win and rode into second place on stage 19. Dave Brailsford has talked about the possibility of Sky delivering a French rider to victory in the Tour but as long as Froome is motivated to race the Tour Sky won’t be hiring a French GC rider and it’s hard to see a homegrown rider doing any better than what Bardet has achieved this year.

ASO recognise that the potential for a Sky dynasty along the lines of (whisper it) US Postal could prove detrimental for the Tour ‘brand’. The idea of 8 man teams was mooted today as a possible handicap to the Sky train (the team have finished this years race with the nine riders who started in Normandy three weeks ago). Others have talked about salary caps and a ‘draft’ for up and coming riding talent but it’s hard to see how such tinkering will upset the Sky juggernaut, at least where the Tour is concerned.

There’s another irony that this is the first year where Sky’s dominance of the GC at the Tour hasn’t been accompanied with accusations about doping. This, of itself, is a good thing although I am a little surprised given that Sky have made their opponents look so ordinary. The insights of the peloton have been notable in this respect; Mark Renshaw guesting on ITV today saying he studies Sky’s methods with great interest. Obviously, no one within the sport is going to speculate openly but the fans have shown much more respect to Froome’s result this year.

So the 2016 Tour wasn’t a classic as far as I am concerned; a British win isn’t enough of a justification. I have got this far without mentioning what for many was their defining moment of this years race. The incident involving Froome, Porte and Trek’s Bauke Mollema on the Ventoux stage could have played out very differently but actually mattered little to the overall outcome. I’m on board with Froome getting his finish time adjusted (and Richie too, although that was far less significant) as a result of his bike getting smashed by an oncoming moto. I thought that Mollema asked the key question however when he asked if he would have been given the same time as Froome if he had been the only one of the three impeded. When Dave Brailsford suggested that Sky waited patiently for a decision from the race jury I imagine the reverse was true. I can’t help thinking that it would have made for a more interesting race if the original post stage GC positions had been allowed to stand. The likelihood is that Froome would have re-taken yellow on the following day’s TT anyway but it would have shaken things up a bit, something the race needed in my view.

So much for the GC. Peter Sagan continues to entertain in the rainbow stripes and collected another points classification win. He vies with Froome as the rider you have to watch. If only some of the Sagz charisma could rub off onto Froome too. The KOM was dull viewing; it’s a classement that I normally enjoy following but Rafal Majka was more enigmatic as 2016 KOM than the entertaining rider who took the same jersey in 2014.

The sprints certainly didn’t turn out as expected. The key Mark Cavendish stat is that he wins far more Tour stages when he is in the same team as Bernie Eisel. It was the perfect start to the race that he finally got his maillot jaune after several attempts by the organisers to engineer the perfect opportunity. I think i’m right the expectations of a Cav resurgence were actually not that high and it’s been compelling to see the influence this has had on Marcel Kittel even after Cavendish had abandoned the race. It remains to be seen if he can cap everything with a gold medal in Rio in the next few weeks but Cavendish can be satisfied with his work so far in July, if not this year.

Cavendish has been reunited with Eisel and Renshaw at Dimension Data (nee MTN Qhubeka). He wasn’t the only one from the team to have an impact on this years race as Steve Cummings delivered another win to add to his victory in last year’s Tour. Cummings has developed a reputation as the breakaway rider of the peloton and this win added to the others gained in each of the stage races he’s entered this year.

Continue reading VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

Who needs sunshine anyway? Enter the cobbled classics

The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.

Poels the new Porte?

I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.

Richie Porte - new team, same story?
Richie Porte – new team, same story?

Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.

Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.

Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.

Boasson Hagen redux

One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.

Kristoff - too kwick for Kav?
Kristoff – too kwick for Kav?

His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.

So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.

* See the screenshot at the top of this page

Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Tour of Poland 2015

So Marcel Kittel got the monkey off his back (or should that be Gorilla?) in his first race since the Tour finished; the 2015 Tour of Poland. No doubt the win was hugely cathartic for the Giant Alpecin rider although if it was meant to herald a return to the heady days of 2014 where he won for fun it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Kittel took the opening stage victory from Orica’s Caleb Ewan and he was in the mix again the following day until a touch of wheels with Lampre Merida’s Sacha Modolo caused an accident that left practically the entire peloton stuck behind the tangled two wheeled wreckage where most of those involved in the bunch sprint were piled on top of one another. Missing from the crash scene was Kittel but he had already lost position before Ewan’s downfall. As he crossed the line behind stage winner Matteo Pelucchi, Kittel showed more emotion than he had at point of victory the day before; erroneously thinking the IAM sprinter had blocked him previously.

Pelucchi took another win the following day with Kittel trailing in a distant 7th as the stage delivered a kick before the line. He lost the overall race lead a day later and that was the end of the beginning of Marcel Kittel’s return to front line racing. His stage one win and the bizarre end to stage two at least delivered some drama to the uninspiring parcours that the race organisers chose for the opening few days. When you have become used to cycling being used as a sometimes not so subtle advertisement for the local tourist board it did seem a bit strange that this years race seemed to have decided to celebrate Poland’s urban rail infrastructure. One stage looping up and down a dual carriage way bisected by a tram line would have been enough; three was probably over doing it.

The second half of the race demonstrated how the Tour of Poland can often throw up an unusual result. Stage 4 provided an unlikely breakaway win and this was followed by the GC changing hands daily as first Bart De Clercq, then Sergio Henao and finally Jon Izaguirre pulled on the leaders jersey. Henao had been in the situation of holding the race lead into the final day’s TT stage at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco earlier this year. If there’s a safe place for your money it’s definitely not betting on Henao winning a stage race when a TT is the deciding factor. It’s still hugely enjoyable just to see the rider racing again after a career threatening injury but Henao is unlikely to be offered the chance of leading Sky in a race that really matters to them anytime soon.

And just as the spores of wild funghi spread across the undergrowth the sponsorship mushrooms of the Tour of Poland continue to multiply. If there’s a symbol of the race for me it’s these inflatable bulbs that line the race route as I have noted previously (here and here). Maybe this was the motive for the finishing circuits on this years race as the mushroom count for this years race surpassed both of the previous years combined. It’s part of the race’s charm that a sponsor can get maximum bang for their buck and yet random members of the crowd can get to the stage winner to claim an autograph of bidon before even the soigneur has handed them a coke and a towel.

Continue reading Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Tour de France 2015

Why bother shelling out a tenner for 228 pages of official guide when you can get the VCSE lowdown on this years Tour for nothing? 

Last year we had Yorkshire. Everyone said it was going to be good; even me (although I added a typically English caveat; weather permitting). And the sun did shine and it seemed like anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in riding a bike decided to find a spot by the roadside. I know, I was there. The grandest of Grand Departs has spawned its own three day stage race and made Utrecht’s job of hosting this years edition twice as hard. So why then as a (proud) Brit am I feeling a greater sense of anticipation ahead of this year’s Tour than last?

There might be another British* rider in yellow besides Chris Froome

While a lot of Brit fans were waiting to see who would be backing Froome over the next three weeks here in Essex we were looking to see if ‘our’ World Tour rider was going to France (via Holland). It’s easy to forget that Alex Dowsett’s ‘day job’, when he’s not breaking hour records is riding for Movistar. In the last couple of weeks the more eagle eyed among you might have spotted him on the flatter stages at Dauphine and the Route du Sud providing close protection for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. I still suspect Dowsett smarted from his omission from the Movistar squad for last years race that would have passed through some very familiar Essex roads on stage 3. Poor health was cited at the time but other than the obvious home ties last year it was harder to see why he would have been selected. This year is a completely different story. Besides the ‘obvious’ item on his 2015 palmares, Dowsett took overall at the Bayern Rundfahrt and he’s coming off another national TT championship win. The opening stage prologue isn’t quite the quintessential ‘ten’ of the Brit club scene but I think Movistar have picked him to have a go at taking the jersey. It won’t be easy but other than Giant’s Tom Dumoulin I can’t think of another rider that stage 1 couldn’t have been better scripted for.

A wide open green jersey / points competition

ASO have tweaked the points allocation again this year and that should suit the ‘pure’ sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. The big blonde German elephant in the room though is the missing Marcel Kittel. Is it illness? Lack of form? There have even been suggestions that Kittel has succumbed to the cyclist’s illness; depression. Whatever the reason, the rider that looked set to dominate the bunch gallops is absent and that means that the metaphorical sprinters ‘crown’ is up for grabs. Of course Kittel’s absence doesn’t automatically mean that Cavendish will reclaim the number one spot. There’s as much depth among the fast men as there is in this years GC field.

Let’s start with Alexander Kristoff. I posed the question of who could beat the Katusha rider after he claimed his second monument of his career by winning the Ronde earlier in the season. He’s been kept under wraps in the last few weeks (he didn’t contest his home championships) but you have to think he’s going to be tough to beat as it has felt at times as if all Kristoff has to do is turn up to a race in order to win. Not unlike a Mark Cavendish of old in fact. Cav looks like he’s in good touch too though; he rode an extremely untypical but nevertheless inspired solo effort in last weekends nationals in Lincoln. He looks as if he is peaking at the perfect time and isn’t July a good time to get your mojo back?

Another rider who could lay claim to that is Peter Sagan. A rider who has had to endure a stream of motivational messages that his team owner shares with the wider social media audience and possibly the worst national champs kit of recent years could be forgiven for crumbling under the weight of a $15M salary and expectation in the classics. Sagan took the GC along with bagging a stage win or so at this years Tour of California going head to head with Cavendish and I would expect Sagan to have to take the points where he has the advantage over Cavendish (on primes etc.) if he’s serious about another green jersey.

While it has been enjoyable to see Sagan in a place where he’s feeling like popping wheelies again I think this could be Kristoff’s year. I’m not as sure about the final showcase in Paris though; that one i’m giving to Cav.

Enough already.. what about the GC?

Dowsett in yellow. Kristoff v Cav. Mere aperitif’s to the main course that is this years GC battle. Last year we had Contador v Froome. This year we can add Nairo Quintana to the mix and that’s before we even mention last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali. I’m sure someone has got the ‘stat’ that says when these four last raced against one another (together). Me? Haven’t a clue, but whenever that was a lot has changed not least that each rider is now a grand tour winner.

Continue reading It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

Continue reading Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Is that the US live feed i’m watching? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #41

Milan San Remo 2015 

If ever there’s a race to follow a script, at least as far as when something actually happens it’s got to be Milan San Remo. Every year there’s a rumour of, if not an actual route change to be implemented with the intention of making the race easier / harder for sprinters / climbers. And if the parcours is changed you can be pretty much certain that it won’t make the slightest difference and it will be fine to go to the garden centre (it’s a UK thing) or have dinner with the family and tune in when the race reaches the Cipressa.

And so it goes that the 2015 variety of MSR followed the script pretty much to the letter. Sure the key incidents were specific to this years edition but we could have easily foregone an hour or so of super slow motion rain jacket removal or watching riders going through the musettes.

OK, so if you had tuned in with 25km to go you would have missed the crash on a wet descent that took out one of the Sky team and allowed Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift to go clear of the peloton. They mopped up the last of the break but were caught by some determined chasers including Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar as they climbed the Cipressa. Sky were ostensibly working for Swift, but it’s hard to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have had the green light to go for the win too. It was the Welshman who launched the last forlorn attack of the day on the Poggio with van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss for company. With those two caught on the descent it was down to a sprinters selection to contest the win on the Via Roma (the 2015 route change natch).

There were some choice names here too; last years winner and arguably race favourite Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Bling Matthews and Paris Nice stage winner Davide Cimolai. I signed off my last post with the prediction that Sagz wouldn’t do anything in MSR and so it proved; fourth place is not what Oleg Tinkoff expects (more of which later). My money was on Kristoff after he got back into the leading group with the help of the smartest guy in the peloton Luca Paolini. But who surfed the wheels from way back to deny them all? John Degenkolb, the Mr Versatile of the sprinters (this is the guy who finished on the podium at Paris Roubaix last year). OK, he was hardly long odds for MSR but I don’t remember him winning from so far back before. It’s a great win and should give Degenkolb equal billing at Giant alongside Marcel Kittel now (if he didn’t have it already).

I wonder if the result doesn’t have implications for another Giant rider. Warren Barguil has struggled since his breakthrough stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta. His situation reminds me a little of Mark Cavendish’s short stay at Sky, albeit they’re different types of rider. If Barguil is going to develop as a stage racer and certainly a grand tour rider it’s hard to see how he can do this at Giant, which is a team that is to all intents and purposes predicated as a sprint outfit. Much as I think Giant would want to keep him I can’t help wondering if Barguil would do better elsewhere. Dave Brailsford has talked about winning the Tour with a French rider, might Barguil fit the Sky mould?

Since Ben Swift claimed the final podium spot in last years MSR he’s been touted as a classics rider. When the Sky threesome went clear I thought he had a great opportunity to win the race solo if he could have used Rowe and then Thomas to leap frog over the final two climbs. This would have relied on the rest of the peloton to wave the metaphorical white flag perhaps, but it looked like Swift didn’t really have the legs in the sprint either. Classics wise Sky are now in worse position than they were a year ago. Ian Stannard may have repeated his Het Nieuwsblad win from 12 months ago but the teams MSR result is disappointing in comparison. Sky really need a result in the Ronde or Roubaix to show that they have taken a step forward in one day racing.

Volta Catalunya 2015 

I could have been forgiven for thinking I had tuned in to one of the US races so bad was the television feed from the Volta Catalunya (they seem to have dropped the ‘a’ in 2015) this week. The weather hasn’t been all that but we lost an entire ‘live’ broadcast yesterday (stage 2). There was a silver lining in that I didn’t have to see an Alejandro Valverde stage win though.

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador

It’s been quite a fun race so far. The peloton completely messed up the time gaps to the three man break on stage 1 allowing CCC rider Maciej Paterski to take the win and the best part of a 3 min lead on GC. It was as you were GC wise after stage 2 and then the big hitters started to emerge today on stage 3.

Chris Froome has returned to racing after missing Tirreno Adriatico through illness and based on today’s performance he’s still not quite there. Froome had only Richie Porte left for support on the final climb as Tinkoff took advantage of several crashes on the descent of the penultimate climb to do some damage to the peloton. Bjaarne Riis has been suspended from Tinkoff for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (there’s a good article about that here) although Sagan’s result in MSR has been suggested as the catalyst. Alberto Contador looked in good shape today, almost back to his stage win earlier this season in the  Ruta del Sol as far I was concerned.

The Contador group that led into Girona included Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Garmin Cannondale pair Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. While Contador seemed most concerned with Porte taking his turn on the front (Aru and Uran knew their place and rode when they were told to), no one seemed to be taking much notice of AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. He attacked as the group reached the outskirts of town and by the time anyone had decided to respond it was already to late and Pozzovivo had a relatively easy win after a preceding hard 155 kms.

Paterski relinquished his race lead to Pierre Rolland who may well lose the leaders jersey in turn tomorrow on the queen stage to La Molina tomorrow. The big names are around 2.20 back on Rolland and Froome isn’t so far away another 20 seconds or so behind. If he can come back the way he did after Contador took his (Ruta del Sol) stage win earlier this year with one of his own at the same event, the GC could be Froome’s for the taking. There are plenty of other names in the mix though and tomorrow’s stage is likely to be a good one. Let’s hope they sort out the TV pictures.

Velon – Can cycling do a Premier League? (and do we want it to..)

Waking up to press reports about the launch of Velon this morning. With a good percentage of the world tour (including Sky) signed up already it’s looking like an attempt by the teams to exert greater control over the way the sport is currently organised.

In itself, a greater say for the teams, isn’t an obviously ‘bad’ thing. Some team principals have bemoaned the lack of a transfer system for example that could introduce a vital revenue stream for teams at all levels. Then there’s the race calendar that prevents the world’s best riders competing against each other due to events clashing. A powerful bloc in the sport negotiating to ensure future financial viability could (in theory) transform cycling for the better.

Velon - big changes for the peloton?
Velon – big changes for the peloton?

While a transfer system isn’t explicitly mentioned in today’s news story, one of the Velon co-signatories Dave Brailsford is a proponent of team’s receiving a benefit from the movement of riders they have developed elsewhere. VCSE agrees that a reorganisation of how riders move between teams is long overdue. Looking at the UK for example where even successful teams disappear almost overnight for lack of a sponsor, revenue from a transfer (Adam Blyth from NFTO to Orica say) could ensure a smaller teams survival. This has been part of the operating model in football for years. However, there’s a risk that a transfer system within cycling could also lead to some of the same outcomes ‘enjoyed’ within football, with the teams with the biggest budgets snapping up the best riders to the detriment of competition. Sure it’s unlikely that a transfer system would produce a different grand tour winner to the default Contador, Froome or Nibali, but it could result in a dominance among certain teams that (potentially) damages the spectacle. On the whole though if one of the aims of Velon is to instigate a framework that provides teams with another revenue stream besides sponsorship this can only be a good thing.

The challenge for Velon is to ensure that the stated aim at the heart of the project; to have ‘fans’ at the ‘centre’ is actually delivered. While there are some obvious beneficial parallels to the introduction of the Premier League (EPL) there are other aspects that cycling shouldn’t be seeking to replicate. For the moment cycling is a relatively accessible sport for someone who wants to start a team, with even some world tour teams able to operate on a budget of just a few million euros. In football, the EPL in particular but also the top leagues in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy require annual investment of hundreds if not billions of dollars. In the case of the EPL much of this money has come from an ever increasing amount of cash from Sky as the main broadcaster of live matches. Over the years as Sky have bid ever more for the TV rights the clubs who have managed to stay in the top flight have become in turns bloated and (yet) increasingly reliant on the moneytrain. While it can be argued that Sky’s involvement has been good for the fans in that it has forced every broadcaster to raise their ‘game’ as far as showing football is concerned, there remains a small but vocal minority who feel that it hasn’t always been for the best. The loss of the ‘traditional’ 3 o’clock kick off and the price of a ticket to a game are just two of the complaints often levelled at the EPL host station and clubs.

What does any of this have to do with Velon? The EPL started as a group of football club chairman (who in those days were as likely to be the owner of the club too) getting together to discuss a breakaway league. This was in response to their perceived viewpoint that the terrestial (and free to air) networks weren’t giving them (the clubs) full value for money in what was at the time a nascent live football environment. The launch of the EPL on Sky was certainly sold to fans and viewers as football with the fans at the centre, although it would be harder to make that claim now.

On the very day that Velon is announced it might seem cynical to question its aims, particularly as it has the opportunity to make the sport more sustainable for its participants and that can only be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how Velon can operate in the (now) three way space between the UCI and the race organisers. There would appear to be no obvious benefit in holding key early season races like Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico at the same time for example, although whether a move to non clashing dates would see riders take part in both races is harder to imagine. Then there’s the question of TV money. Within the UK, cycling is not so mainstream that many races are shown free to air. For the committed cycling fan some kind of subscription to a satellite or cable provider is essential to be able to see the spring classics or each grand tour ‘live’. Long before donning their Velon hats team principals have volunteered that they don’t feel that get enough of the benefits derived from the biggest races by the organisers. It’s difficult to see a ‘turkeys voting for Xmas’ scenario whereby ASO surrenders a share of their earnings from the Tour. Might some of the teams push towards a television model that requires the armchair fan to reach further in their pockets to watch ‘their’ chosen sport? One of the reasons why races like the Vuelta have seen such an increase in support by fans at the roadside in recent years is the fact that cycling is one of the few (if not the only) professional sports that’s free for spectators. It would be good to see Velon enshrine a commitment to having ‘fans at the centre’ that would guarantee that this state continues. Cycling does not need to introduce ticketing into the final kilometre.

If Velon can deliver a sustainable model where there’s an incentive for all teams to develop young riders (and while we’re at it a women’s team for every world tour outfit), a racing calendar that avoids date clashes for the biggest races while (at least) retaining the current level of accessibility for fans we should all be celebrating in a few years time. However, it’s so instructive to look at the examples from other sports and perhaps, at least a little, to be careful what we wish for..