The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.
Poels the new Porte?
I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.
Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.
Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.
Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.
Boasson Hagen redux
One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.
His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.
So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.
I posted my thoughts on the Cycling News Reader Poll last year so here’s this years submission. I haven’t posted anything since the end of the Vuelta for all sorts of different reasons so there might be an end of season review feel to this post as well (maybe!).
I haven’t written about every nominee as it does feel a bit like the Cycling News team went with ten nominees for the Best Male category and then wondered if there would be a bit of a Twitterstorm if they didn’t have the same number of nominees in the other categories. While some of the nominations feel like they have been added for the sake of it, there are other categories where I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment on whether or not a riders inclusion is warranted. Either way, there won’t be pages and pages on the Mountain Bike or Cyclocross categories.
So without fanfare or drum roll here’s my picks for the 2015.
Best Male Road Rider
So the normal suspects you would expect to see in an end of year poll are hear, alongside a couple of surprises. Lets deal with those first.
Richie Porte started the year in fantastic form winning Paris Nice for the second time amongst other things and generally looking like a better rider than Chris Froome during the early part of the year. Things began to unravel at the Giro and he began to resemble the rider who hadn’t exactly thrived when he was asked to pick up the team leadership from Froome in the 2014 Tour. Porte’s results post his return to racing after the Giro were less than spectacular and he even found himself slipping in his support role to best pal Froome at the Tour. If I was filling out Porte’s report card in April he would have got a A star but ahead of what is now (probably) a make or break move to BMC in 2016 he’s probably a C minus.
Another ‘What were they thinking?’ addition to the Best Male nomination is Mark Cavendish. Cav started the year under pressure to deliver results at Etixx and ended the year with a new team. While he isn’t the only sprinter to have had a less than stellar year (Marcel Kittel anyone?) it wasn’t perhaps the return to winning ways that everyone (the rider, his team, his fans) wanted. Sure Cav notched up another Tour stage win but he was completely outshone by a resurgent Andre Griepel in terms of number of wins and by the German’s victory on the most important stage of all in Paris. Cav of course remains a massive personality in the peloton and among UK fans but even the most diehard Cav supporter would find it hard to justify his selection as the best rider.
Another early starter was Alexander Kristoff. After Flanders I asked if anyone could stop him from winning any race he chose. Well as with so many predictions there was an element of hubris and Kristoff didn’t go on to win stages at the Tour for fun. In fact other than a low key win towards the end of the year it felt as if the Katusha rider had slipped from the radar screen completely.
Perhaps the sprinter who did the best job of retaining form over the whole season was John Degenkolb. With Marcel Kittel’s catastrophic loss of form Degenkolb became the key focus for his Giant Alpecin team in 2015. That Degenkolb took his first monument in Milan San Remo was perhaps less of a surprise than him taking his second a matter of weeks later in Paris Roubaix. Unlike his rivals Degenkolb was adaptable enough to still win grand tour bunch sprints including the final day around Madrid in the Vuelta. Degenkolb, once a target for Etixx as an eventual replacement for Tom Boonen the irony is that while the team retain the shampoo brand title sponsor it is Kittel who is leaving for the Belgian outfit.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Best Male poll without the Tour winner and sure enough Chris Froome is included. I’ll credit Froomey for not quite sticking to the script this year and looking pretty ordinary on the bike until the latter stages of the Dauphine. The way that he and his Sky teammates bossed the Tour from stage 2 onwards without too much there to unsettle them deserved better than the piss that was literally poured on them in France. There was a tilt a Vuelta Tour double but that was undone by another accident that may or may not have been bought on by bike handling skills. A second Tour win for the honorary Brit is no mean achievement but no better or worse than the other grand tour winners from this year.
And what of those two? Alberto Contador won the Giro pretty much singlehanded as his Tinkoff teammates struggled to keep pace with Astana. It was pretty clear how much this had taken out of him when he was the first of the big names to really suffer in the Tour. The Giro win didn’t taste quite as sweet while struggling to keep up with Froome and co in July and it’s no surprise that Contador wants to go out with a band in France next year. Fabio Aru was up and down like a yoyo on the Giro and then later during the Vuelta but showed enough to hold on to second place in Italy and then go one better in Spain. Perhaps not the most popular winner of the Vuelta thanks to his team and the manner of the win he looks increasingly like the favoured rider at Astana.
When the BBC crown their Sports Personality each year the debate afterwards often centres less on the winners sporting success as much as are they in fact a personality. When Bradley Wiggins won in 2012 both boxes could be firmly ticked as he rocked up in a wickedly tailored suit and was pissed before the broadcast had even finished. All of that plus Britain’s first ever Tour winner and an Olympic Gold medallist to (Chelsea) boot! Froome the following year wasn’t really in the running, despite Sky’s best efforts to add colour to him. Politeness doesn’t really ‘sell’. Peter Sagan started the year unable to win. I wondered if the pressure of his multi million dollar contract at Tinkoff was having an effect. A trip to the US for the Tour of California where they LOVE him provided the rejuvination and while there wasn’t a win at the Tour the green jersey was duly claimed. It was the end of season single handed win at the world championships that delivered the result that Oleg Tinkoff’s millions demanded but it was the return of Sagan’s sense of fun in post stage interviews at the Tour that cements him as my pick for Best Male rider of 2015.
Best Male Team
Fortunately Cycling News allow us a choice. Don’t fancy any of their nominee’s? Pick one of your own. And that’s what I have done with my Best Male Team selection.
MTN Qhubeka might not have been the winningest team of 2015. In fact they didn’t pick up masses of victories full stop, but it was the significance of what they achieved this year that makes them my pick for Best Male Team.
Bringing Brian Smith on board as General Manager saw the team step up a gear with a number of high profile signings and key changes in equipment to become one of the most distinctive outfits in the peloton. A stage win in the Tour and the Vuelta and Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the overall at the Tour of Britain were the arguably bigger wins than the KOM jersey at the Dauphine but more importantly that was won by a black African rider: Daniel Teklehaimanot. Smith has the challenge of continuing to get the best out of an ageing team of ‘big’ names like new addition Cavendish and promoting the best of the African riders. If he can do this it could be one of the most important components of cycling becoming a more diverse and genuinely global sport.
Best Female Road Rider
Lizzie Armitstead. No contest really. It might be a little bit churlish to say that Marianne Vos being injured for most of the season gave Lizzie a clear run but that would be pretty disrespectful to a talented core of riders within the women’s pro peloton just as much as it would be disrespectful to Lizzie.
Winning the world cup for the second year in a row demonstrated her form over the course of the season and the world championships was the icing on the cake. More importantly the way that she rode the race in 2015 showed that she had learnt the lessons of 2014 and didn’t let a winning position slip. The pressure will be on now (not least from a tendency to big up GB medal hopes by lazy journo’s) for a gold medal in the Olympic road race in Rio next year. The course doesn’t suit her but if anyone has the mental ability to overcome that it’s Lizzie Armitsead.
Best Women’s Team
Boels Dolmans might seem like the obvious choice. They’re Lizzie Armitstead’s team as well as the berth for riders like Evelyn Stevens. But my pick for Best Women’s team would be Velocio SRAM. The team emerged from the remains of the Specialized Lululemon squad that announced it was folding at the end of the 2014 season. Initally crowd funded the team were ultimately received backing from Cervelo and SRAM for the 2015 season. For various reasons the team in this incarnation is no more and the riders had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a team for next year while there was still part of this year’s races to complete. It says a lot about this group of riders that they were still one of the winningest teams in the women’s peloton in 2015 and rounded off the season with the TTT world championship.
Keep reading for the rest of the VCSE winners here
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.
Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.
While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.
Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.
So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.
Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.
We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.
Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.
His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.
Sky upset the ASO applecart
With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.
The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?
In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.
With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?
Valverde – pas normale?
After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.
The Ruta del Sol or Tour of Andalucia or Vuelta a Andalucia (depending on your preference) finished last weekend. The only ‘live’ cycling on offer to the armchair fan last week was shown perhaps less because of the race’s sixtieth anniversary than the fact that coverage was available for Eurosport. Most of the ‘smaller’ races shown on the digital channel are commentated on from a studio in London, probably not in homage to the days of Murray Walker and James Hunt sharing a microphone during the BBC’s grand prix coverage in the 70’s and 80’s, but for obvious cost reasons. Eurosport had people on the ground in on the Costa del Sol in the shape of the delightful and multilingual Laura Meseguer and it may not have been entirely unconnected that we enjoyed rather a lot of pre-stage interviews mixed in as the race unfolded.
Any confusion over what to call the race arises in VCSE’s view from the fact that the Ruta del Sol is less a tour of Andulicia than one of those coach bound day trips marketed to pensioners in the back of local newspapers. The Ruta lasted four days with an opening prologue followed by three stages. This years Vuelta a Espana kicks off in the south so there was some interest in seeing what passes for a cat 1 climb in southern Spain. Sum up; they seem a bit easier than the ones in Galicia.
In the opening prologue it looked for a long time that Sky super domestique and automaton Vasil Kiryenka would take the win and leaders jersey. Sky had Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins at the race and whatever their respective roles were likely to be for the rest of the week Wiggins would normally start out favourite against the clock. So it goes, and Wiggins did indeed beat Porte but he finished down on Kiryenka and Geraint Thomas. A top ten finish suggested that Wiggins was trying at least at this point. By the closing km’s of stage one it appeared that some of the demons of 2013 hadn’t been completely exorcised as he was one of the first of Sky’s train to pull out of the line on the final climb. This could (of course) be unfair; the plan for Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France has already been heavily trailed with Wiggins headed for Paris Roubaix and, perhaps, team leadership at the Vuelta. Nevertheless, knowing what we do now about how Wiggins had been reluctant to ride the Giro last year is it possible that Sky are pushing him towards races simply to earn something (anything) from their investment? In fairness to Wiggins he repaid his employers and more in winning the Tour ahead of Dave Brailsford’s five-year target and a small stage race early in the season is the wrong place to make sweeping conclusions. Wiggins remains a more compelling and complex character than the man who has usurped him as leader Chris Froome and the racing scene seems more enjoyable when Wiggins is enjoying his racing as with last years Tour of Britain.
But enough for now of the trials of one fallen hero and on to another. Alejandro Valverde was victorious in the prologue and in the next two stages. A three-time winner of the Ruta del Sol, there was still some surprise that he won the prologue. Valverde is a pretty divisive rider for reasons that can be counted off on each finger should you have enough hands and the inclination to do so. His unrepentant approach to doping historically and to quote a more recent example his apparent surrender during the worlds last year denying countryman Joaquim Rodriguez the win. With the lovely Laura on hand to interview and Rob Hatch providing a fluent translation we were treated to Valverde thanking his team and family if not his doctor at the end of each stage.
Anti doping has caught up, if not exactly caught on in Spain in recent years, although there is a sense that the relative decline of the countries sporting greats (not only in cycling) have paralleled these developments. It doesn’t feel right to be too cynical this early in the season, but it will be interesting to see if Valverde can repeat this kind of form outside Spain as the season progresses. VCSE suspects not.
Marcel Kittel was absent from the race, so Giant Shimano had to look elsewhere for a result. Tom Dumoulin came close in the prologue and in a break on the final stage. While the dutchman received no help from his compatriots on the rival (dutch) Belkin squad, he might have been better selecting one of Giant’s Propel aero frames for his breakaway. Last year Giant were bike sponsors for Belkin, although this team ran under the nom de plume Blanco until the Tour in a very similar team uniform to this years Giant Shimano outfit. Looking at Dumoulin pedalling squares as he attempted to stay clear of the peloton on stage four VCSE wondered if it was possible that Giant had saved themselves some money by recycling some of the old Blanco bikes into the Giant Shimano service course this year.
Tour of Oman 2014
It’s felt a bit like a television column as much as road racing comment so far this year. Not that this years racing has been short rationed. So far, VCSE has enjoyed the Dubai Tour as well as the Ruta del Sol live on Eurosport where last year it was highlights only from races like the Tour of Oman.
In many ways Oman is the poor relation to the other races held in the Arabian peninsula during February, although it often serves up the most interesting stages. Last year saw Chris Froome taking, what seemed inexplicable at the time, his first ever stage race victory. His performance was made more emphatic by the riders he saw off on the climb to the top of the Green Mountain; Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. Froome was back this year to defend his title, although the field was a little less than stellar to challenge him. The viewing was a bit underdone too. Unable to get the funding to deliver live racing a half hour highlights package was served up the day after each stage accompanied by the sort of martial music that would top the charts in North Korea.
It’s disappointing that a race that offers far more than its counterparts in Dubai and Qatar cannot pull in the revenue to justify a live feed. No doubt it’s out there somewhere (Al Jazeera Sport anyone?) but this years version felt, like the Ruta del Sol above, something less than it promised.
Rain stops play
Rain might not, but snow certainly will. Last year VCSE returned from a weeks riding on the Isle of Wight ready to enjoy the first of the Belgian spring races, Kuurne Brussels Kuurne. You know how it is, avoid social media for the day and then hit the Sky Plus box with an appropriate beverage to enjoy the action. At the time the self induced social media blackout meant that the cancellation of the race due to the weather had passed us by. All that was left to do was to blame the Sky box.
Twelve months on and it’s 99.99% certain that the race will go ahead, the day after Het Nieuwsblad (which managed to run last year). The spotlight will be on Tom Boonen in his comeback year from injury in 2013 and he will turn out in both races this weekend. Last years winner Luca Paolini goes for Katusha although it’s hard to see last years cat and mouse style finish being repeated. BMC have Thor Hushovd and Greg van Avermaet and could provide tough opposition for Boonen. Also lining up in his first race since leaving Boonen’s Omega Pharma team is IAM cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel has a point to prove this year and another rider to look out for is Garmin’s Nick Nuyens.
Many of the same riders will turn out on Sunday with riders like Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke elevated to team leader status. With last years hiatus the previous winner of the semi-classic was (at the time) a Sky rider, but Mark Cavendish is absent this year. Sky will be led by Edvald Boasson Hagen this year, but the Norwegian will be an outside bet if this race comes down to a sprint. The rider who showed last year that he could adapt to the shorter climbs of the cobbled classics was Andre Griepel and if it it’s in a bunch at the close on Sunday he is the VCSE favourite.
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.
As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.
To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.
As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.
Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier
Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.
It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.
The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.
These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.
All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:
A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.
And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.
At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.
After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*
With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.
Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan
Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.
We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.
You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.
VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.
The riders of the 2013 Tour de France, having completed seven stages already would probably disagree, but this years race starts in earnest tomorrow as the Tour enters the Pyrenees for two days of climbing. Saturday sees the first summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines and will be followed by four first category climbs on Sunday. By Monday and the first rest day we will have our initial indications of who will end up in the Maillot Jaune in two weeks on the streets of Paris. Week one has pretty much centred on the points classification battle with all of the key figures, with the exception of Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, winning a stage ahead of Friday’s rolling stage to Albi.
Like many great plans the decision to forgo a prologue and open the 100th Tour with a sprint stage on the races first visit to Corsica didn’t quite pan out as expected. Tour Director Christian Prudhomme had made it pretty obvious that he favoured Mark Cavendish to take the first stage and with it the chance to wear yellow for the first time in his career. Argos Shimano with their sprint double team of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb ignored the script and it was Kittel who took the win and the honour of wearing the leaders jersey for stage 2. It later emerged that Cavendish had been suffering from a virus. He seemed philosophical about missing out on yellow, but such is the stature of the new British champion it’s entirely possible that parcours could be ‘tailored’ to allow him another crack at yellow in future Tours.
With the next two stages in Corsica taking in some significant climbs Kittel was never likely to retain the yellow jersey, such is his inability to climb much more than a gentle slope. Either stage offered the chance of a bunch sprint, but almost equally there were opportunities for a breakaway and it was once such move that prevailed by a single second at the line in stage 2. Jan Bakelants of Radioshack all but guaranteed his future employment with the new Trek team that will emerge from the Radioshack ashes in 2014 with the win that also catapulted him into the overall lead. One of riders a second back on Sunday was Sagan and he was pipped again on stage 3 by a rider with form at ‘stealing’ last minute (read: last second) victories; Orica Green Edge’s Simon Gerrans. The Australian rider had controversially snatched the win at Milan San Remo in 2012 by sneaking around Fabian Cancellara’s wheel at the line. His timing was spot on again and Sagan had to console himself with his haul of green jersey points.
The Tour was back on the mainland for Tuesday’s Team Time Trial in Nice. It’s fair to say that most eyes weren’t on Orica Green Edge ahead of the stage. Garmin, who had won the TTT when it last featured had David Millar one second from yellow and were shackled with the favourite’s label by the lazier commentators. Crucially Garmin have a different make up this year and look more likely to take stage wins, rather than feature high on the GC. It’s unlikely that the team would have expected Millar to be the leader in any case and the circumstances they found themselves in for the test were probably a happy coincidence rather than a grand plan. Omega Pharma, with Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel in the squad held the lead for considerable time on the day, with Sky the strongest of the GC teams. Orica were late off the ramp, but rode strongly to not only win the stage, but put Gerrans into yellow following his stage win the previous day.
Mark Cavendish’s (legal) pharmaceuticals had worked their magic by stage 5, although the difference was mostly his Omega Pharma sprint train who dominated the last few kilometres into Marseilles. All of the early season niggles about the lead out have now disappeared and with a further sprint stage due on Thursday in Montpellier a consecutive win could have been on the cards. Week one of the Tour de France will rarely follow such a conventional script and a late fall left Cavendish somewhat frayed of jersey and displaying a few cuts and bruises. He got himself back to the front for the bunch sprint, but it was Lotto Belisol who were firing on all cylinders after their previous day misfire. Andre Greipel took a relatively easy win. Gerran’s surrendered the yellow jersey, but Orica were able to celebrate all the same as it was passed to his team mate; Daryl Impey.
Cannondale ended the first week with a plan; deliver a stage win for Peter Sagan. Although the team in green had their man (comfortably) in the green jersey at the start of the day, at this point last year Sagan already had three wins to his credit. The team went full gas from the start, riding on the front for more than 100 kilometres. Sagan’s points classification rivals were gapped on the first serious climb of the day and with 40 km’s to go Cavendish, Greipel and co’ gave up on the chase back to the peloton. The only fly in the ointment was surprise of the week Bakelants who stayed away with a couple of others until the stage reached the outskirts of Albi. The fact that Cannodale, a man down since Ted King’s enforced withdrawl after the TTT, could still find riders to lead Sagan out summed up just how much his teammates buried themselves today. It would have been heartbreaking if Sagan had been pipped again, but as the first week came to an end he prevailed. It leaves him with an almost 100 point advantage of Greipel in the race to the green jersey, with Cavendish in third. There was always a possibility that the green jersey could get wrapped up early in the Tour and we could see Cavendish ceding the points contest and ‘putting it all on black’ for the final stage in Paris in two weeks.
Sky have three riders in the top 10 on GC as the race enters the Pyrenees tomorrow. Edvald Boasson Hagen has a slight advantage over Chris Froome and Richie Porte based on some well freelanced sprint efforts this week but he and the team will know that its Sky’s team leader who is expected to enjoy the limelight tomorrow. The way the week has panned out has been a bit of dream come true for Sky. The team, with one exception, have managed to avoid injury and have been able to quietly go about their business while teams like Radioshack and Orica have enjoyed their time in the sun. Froome’s GC rivals have been similarly unscathed and the question for the weekend is how the other teams will counter the Sky metronome on the climbs. In fairness to Sky, taking over the lead so soon last year was not part of their strategy, but this didn’t stop criticism of the tactic and claims that it led to a boring race (unless you were British). Their rivals have had twelve months to decide how to combat the Sky train and tomorrow will be the first look at what this counter insurgency entails. Froome will want to be in yellow by the time the race gets to the TT at Mont St Michel next week, where he would expect to consolidate any lead. It’s still too early to say who will launch a challenge, but lurking in the top ten is Garmin’s Dan Martin. If he’s not quite a rival for Froome over three weeks, he could upset the race with a stage win this weekend.
Giro stages 11 & 12 – Tarvisio to Vajont & Longarone to Treviso
Stage 11 was run in dry weather, which no doubt won approval from Bradley Wiggins who revealed that he was suffering with a ‘bog standard’ head cold. The virus seems to have made it’s way around various members of the Sky team with Dario Cataldo suffering in previous days.
There was a poignancy to the stage, with the finish taking place above the Vajont dam, which burst in a tragic accident fifty years ago with huge loss of life. The parcours ran mostly downhill for the first 60 kilometres and the peloton didn’t allow any breaks until the race began to hit some climbs.
Garmin, who in team principle Jonathan Vaughters words had moved to “..plan B” had a rider in the breakaway. Plan B was to go for stage wins with Ryder Hesjedal’s title defence given the last rites the day before on the first mountain top finish. Ramunas Navardauskas was the rider given the nod by the team and he was able to dispatch his last rival on the the final ascent to the finish. For Garmin the stage win provided a morale boost, but they seem at ease with the situation the have found themselves in. Hesjedal looks to be dealing with the disappointment really well and played his part in the victory yesterday by going back to the team car for bottles. It’s an indication of his class that Hesjedal was happy to adopt a new role. Will others having a tough time in the race be happy to do the same.
Third behind BMC’s Daniel Oss on the stage was Bardiani’s King of the Mountains leader Stefano Pirazzi. The GC took advantage of an easier day and rode in as a group.
Wiggins who admitted to feeling “pretty rough” the day before, probably wished he could have stayed on the team bus if not his hotel room ahead of the sprint stage to Treviso. Torrential rain of the variety that had led to his crash on stage 7 meant that the Sky team leader could be at risk of getting dropped. The inevitable happened on a descent where the combination of a (lack of) confidence and fitness left Wiggins off the back, with his team seemingly unaware of what happened.
Organisers RCS had taken the unusual step of announcing that finish times would be taken from the 3km banner, presumably to protect the GC riders on what was a tricky run in. This had the effect of piling the pressure onto Wiggins who looked barely able to spin a gear until, at last, he was joined by his most faithful wingman Christian Knees. Eventually more Sky riders came back but the damage was done and like Hesjedal before him Wiggins fell out of the top 10.
The sprint was a bit more pedestrian than normal and Mark Cavendish made it look pretty easy taking his third win of the race so far. Vincenzo Nibali maintained his lead over chief rivals Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran. The next day or so will be interesting. Wiggins fitness will not have been helped by the conditions but it remains to be seen whether he can pull back more than five minutes on Nibali now. Sky have been in this position before, when Chris Froome was the stronger rider at the Vuelta in 2011 although Sky took their time to decide to let the other rider take over the team leadership. Uran has already said that he doesn’t have the leadership aspirations so it’s not clear if he is psychologically prepared to do this. In this moveable feast, the question of Wiggins and the Tour comes around again. VCSE doesn’t think that Wiggins will abandon the Giro, but a change in strategy to use the remainder of the race as preparation for the Tour could be possible.
At time of posting there’s no ‘official’ word from Sky. The next few days should reveal if Sky will have a new team leader for the Giro in the shape of Rigoberto Uran.
Tour of California
If only they had this weather in Italy. Stages 3 & 4 favoured sprinters and pre race favourite and TOC stage win record holder Peter Sagan took the honours in stage 3. Any thoughts that the race would become a Sagan benefit were misplaced as he looked out of sorts in the race to line in Santa Barbara the following day. The honours here went to Garmin’s Tyler Farrar the teams second stage win of the day after Navardauskas success in the Giro.
Tour of Norway
Things just can’t go right for Sky. Edvald Boasson Hagen was beaten in the sprint finish by fellow Norweigan; Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. Sky have a decent line up here and with Bernie Eisel in the lead out they could be forgiven for expecting more. However, Boasson Hagen has flattered to deceive all year and VCSE thinks he will be another rider struggling to defend a title. Part of the much vaunted ‘classics’ squad, he was often a protected rider in races like Paris Roubaix this year but was unable to do much more than get into the second grouping.
Out of contract this year? VCSE doesn’t know but if the results don’t improve Boasson Hagen could be looking for a new ride in 2014.