Van Avermaet the new Boonen?

Paris Roubaix 2017 

When you choose not to enjoy a ride on one of the most decent days of the year so far you kinda feel obliged to make something of six hours in front of the telly. In this instance it was the  follow up to last week’s live cycling extravaganza in Flanders; Paris Roubaix. Eurosport had been nagging us all week about Tom Boonen’s farewell race and I’m not ashamed to admit I wanted him to pull off the win. Maybe that was part of the problem I have with how I spent the bulk of my waking hours on Sunday; Boonen didn’t take a record breaking fifth victory and everything else seemed like a bit of an anticlimax. Someone asked me this morning if it had been a good race. Correction, they asked if it had been more than that. A classic ‘Classic’ if you will. And the answer to that was ‘No, not really’. Sure, Greg Van Avermaet has rounded off what has been an amazing sequence of results that go from the Maillot Jaune in the Tour, an Olympic road race gold to his first monument but of all of those this one was the easiest to predict. Get beyond the Boonen narrative and it was hard to see who could have been a bigger favourite than GVA.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen 

Seeing another race televised from the flag drop had some interest around how many digs are needed before a breakaway is finally allowed to get away. Yesterday’s race, started an hour late due to an expected tailwind, took a while to find its rhythm as the pace was indeed record breaking. In these situations you’re looking to the commentary team and the host feed to provide something to keep us amused. Rob Hatch was lead mic for the race along side previous winner Sean Kelly. As I said in my Flanders post I think that Rob gets the best from Sean and it definitely helps that he (Kelly) knows what it takes to win this race. Strangely, Eurosport added a third wheel in Declan Quigley for some reason so we ended up with a slightly odd period of the race where we had two lead commentators and no colourman. It worked a little better last year when DQ was used to to field all of the social media interactions, allowing Rob and Sean to concentrate on the live action. I think there must be a bit of a groundswell of opinion about Eurosport’s choice of lead commentator though as Hatch shared a lot of posts highlighting his style of delivery verses A N Other Eurosport commentator that isn’t Declan Quigley. Even Rob was being a bit arch yesterday as the ‘go to’ pronunciation guy, Boonen somehow becoming ‘Booner’ for example.

It’s now fifteen years since the last wet Paris Roubaix and Sunday was a particularly dry one. The challenge for the riders yesterday, beyond a fast pace, was dust. As the riders entered the cobbled sector even the leaders were having to deal with a yellow cloud that enveloped them until their heads were just showing. The dust was kicked up by the commissars and motos making their way ahead of the group and even more so than normal what is a fairly claustrophobic race it was difficult to spot an attack developing. Drop back slightly within the peloton and a selection could take place and slip away before you had chance to react. Boonen missed the crucial move and as the most marked rider in the race (aside from Sagan maybe) it soon became clear he wasn’t going to be able to claw back the gap. Peter Sagan had another day to forget and post race described his spring results as ‘disappointing’. The issue on Sunday was mechanicals but the underlying problem is a weak team where the star rider lacks a strong supporting cast.

On that subject Cannondale Drapac are probably feeling a lot better with their return from Flanders and Roubaix than they might have done when Sep Vanmarcke crashed out of the former. Dylan Van Baarle didn’t have the legs to make the podium in Flanders but under the circumstances the team were happy with 4th place. Sebastian Langeveld went one better last week and his third place is the organisations best result since Johan Van Summeren’s 2011 victory. The team needs wins but the presence of a strong DS in Andreas Klier helped scramble together a positive outcome after losing their principal rider who couldn’t even line up last weekend.

So is Van Avermaet the natural successor to Boonen. I would only say it’s a possibility at this stage. Van Avermaet at 31 has the potential for at least another three years (maybe more) at the top, so there’s every chance that he can add to his first monument victory (he’s on the same number as Sagan in this respect). Boonen in comparison won the last of his monuments (Roubaix) five years ago. By that time he had won Flanders three times and Roubaix for a fourth and final time. If you accept the premise that cycling is (at least) a cleaner sport now it’s not unreasonable to see how Van Avermaet could amass a few more wins in the major classics but I still think he’ll find it challenging to match Boonen. Tom of course might have won more and he came so close to a fifth Roubaix last year but for injury and the not insignificant ‘obstacle’ of Fabian Cancellara. While those two swapped wins in the last ten years it’s easy to see a similar rivalry emerging between Van Avermaet and Sagan. Boonen will be remembered as one of the legends of the sport it remains to be seen if Van Avermaet can overtake his record in the cobbled classics.

I’ll get me coat! – VCSE reviews the Ronde 

Tour of Flanders 2017

Beware the errant spectator, the misplaced guard rail or even the poorly secured advertising banner. There are many things that can derail your chances of success in the classics and it was an apparent combination of those three things that ended Peter Sagan’s hopes of doubling up on his Ronde victory from last year. Like the mysterious injuries caused by red hot disc brakes perhaps we will never know what exactly precipitated Sagan’s fall on the  Oude Kwaremont but whatever it was provided enough for Philippe Gilbert to stay away and claim one of the monumental classic races that he has always maintained he was capable of winning.

Philippe Gilbert

Riding in the Belgian champions colours Gilbert had gone on the attack with more than 50 kilometres of racing to go and still facing some of the hardest climbs. In the races I’ve seen him in this year he’s looked like a rider who wants to race for every sign even if the result was unlikely to go his way. A gambler then? Perhaps, but maybe also a rider with a point to prove. Tom Boonen, racing his final Flanders, is targeting Paris Roubaix as his swan song but he’s a perennial favourite at 36 years old. So Gilbert at two years Boonen’s junior; why not? Well saying you can win it is one thing, actually doing it is something else entirely.

Gilbert has clearly been rejuvenated by his move to Quick Step after four years at BMC. It’s always seemed to me that the last thing you want to do as a professional rider who’s winning races regularly is to move to BMC. Gilbert moved there after a stellar 2011 season that saw him take all three of the Ardennes classics as well as an early season win in Strade Blanche. He might have spent a year in the rainbow stripes but another Amstel Gold in 2014 aside it looked like Gilbert was a relatively under productive on a big salary. If this does him a disservice even the rider himself questioned whether the team really knew how to get the best from him, even going so far as suggesting that he would sacrifice his form in the Ardennes for a crack at the cobbles. BMC didn’t appreciate that suggestion at the time and we’re happy to put the house on Van Avermaet by not extending Gilbert’s contract at the end of 2016. That isn’t to say that BMC were wrong to do so; Van Avermaet has won Het Nieuswblad, E3 and Gent Wevelgem this year and Gilbert has rolled the dice in so many races that his number was always going to come up at some point.

Compare and contrast two teams and Gilbert’s start to 2017. His form in the run up to today’s race should arguably have made him the favourite. Second in E3 and Dwars door Vlaandaren, stage win and GC in the 3 days of De Panne. But no, all the talk, the pre-race hyperbole was Sagan, Van Avermaet and to a lesser extent Boonen. Going long might not have seemed like a recipe for success either, at the point of Gilbert’s attack Sagan and Van Avermaet were both  very much a factor.

It’s often a risk with the biggest sporting events that the decision to ‘go live’ and ‘bring us all the action’ results in very little ‘action’ taking place. Returning from an early season cycling holiday in Spain I restored the power to our Sky Plus box this morning and found that live coverage would start at 9.30 this morning! Unfortunately for me this didn’t make for enjoyable viewing as the British Eurosport feed persists with Carlton Kirby as their lead commentator. Now I know watching cycling is a bit niche out there in the real world so taking issue with who calls the race might be seen as navel gazing in the extreme. Trouble is Carlton is really beginning to grate on me. Days were that David Harmon was Eurosport’s go to cycling guy but he left early in 2013 and since then the big stuff has been Carlton’s gig. He still manages to have his moments and his commentary on Iljo Keisse’s win in the 2012 Tour of Turkey is well worth a search on my YouTube page but most of the time I just wish I could mute him. Funny thing is the commentator who I think does it get right seems to polarise opinion almost as much as Carlton. Rob Hatch did call the race on the world feed (whatever that is) today and I think he generally gets the tone of things right. When the race was failing to ignite early on today Hatch would have lead a discussion about the contenders that wouldn’t have felt like he was calling out names from the start list. He also seems to get the best out of Eurosport’s lead colourman, the legend that is Sean Kelly. Anticipating a barrage of banality from Kirby, Sean can be equally anodyne in his contributions although he got engaged of his own accord today after Gilbert attacked. Rob Hatch manages to ask Kelly a question that actually makes him think and draws out some interesting insights as a result. Pairing Kelly with Kirby does Sean at bit of a disservice I think. Of the other commentators out there I think Ned Boulting will emerge as a bit of a doyenne after a shaky start. David Millar alongside him is very good too as someone with with recent knowledge of life in the peloton as well as no apparent desire to become a ‘character’. Matt Stephens is good in either role and Brian Smith provides a sterling service shooting down Kirby’s flights of fancy when required. Magnus Backstedt doesn’t appear as often as he used to but when he does you have to hope he’s alongside Rob Hatch as Kirby seems to melt any intelligent thought he might have. I’ll have to give some credit to Carlton as he was prepared to call it for Gilbert sooner than anyone else might have dared to, but he does love a trier.

Any commentator would have struggled to find much to get excited about early on though. Race organisers Flanders Classics had made a number of changes to the route this year with the start moving from Bruges to Antwerp. For this monument tradition can always be bought and the suggestion is that Antwerp paid a six figure sum to host the race. Well at least they didn’t have to buy the crowds that turned out in the sunshine. Money apparently changed hands again to get the Muur-Kapelmuur reinstated into the race route after several years absence. No complaints about that and money well spent as it was the back drop for the key selection of the race with Gilbert and Boonen going clear with teammate Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s  Luke Rowe in the group. Vanmarcke’s bad luck in the monuments continued and he even managed to bundle Rowe up in his misfortune when the Sky rider couldn’t avoid the falling Cannondale team leader. Vanmarcke got back on a bike eventually but he the crash ended his chances and it looks like a breakthrough win is as far away as ever. Rowe hadn’t look that strong either and with Ian Stannard relatively anonymous so far this year Sky have had a poor return on the cobbles in 2017.

While Sagan’s coming together with an anorak might have sealed things for Gilbert,  Van Avermaet had a good go at reeling him in. He might have done too, but was probably undone by running out of kms to track down the leader coupled with the completely supine response from the other riders in his group. As I said earlier I think there was an element of luck that played its part in Gilbert’s victory but the unpredictable factor was leavened out by the riders self belief that he could bring off a result in this race to the extent of launching a solo attack so far out that most wouldn’t have expected to survive. Gilbert’s decision, post Flanders to pull out of Paris Roubaix suggests that he would have been prepared to gamble again if he hadn’t have pulled off the win in the Ronde.

Pais Vasco 2017

A few riders that might have featured in Flanders lined up in the Basque Country on Monday. With Sky’s poor showing on the cobbles might they have benefited from the presence of the Gilbertesque Michal Kwiatowski?

I much prefer the early season week long stages races and I look forward to Itzulia primarily to see hard racing in horrible weather and on that score this year’s edition has so far disappointed. We’ve just returned from a week on the bikes in Spain and enjoyed weather that by U.K. standards was positively balmy. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of rtthe week’s action but hoping that the rain clouds start gathering otherwise the race might end up looking like an Argos Volta a Catalonia.

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

The only thing that’s predictable about the Vuelta is its unpredictability

Vuelta a Espana week 2 review

I left off the 2015 Vuelta a Espana on the first rest day and ahead of the stage that many of us thought would point towards the rider most likely to take the overall this year. Last week we had long since lost Vincenzo Nibali from the race. Entered as ‘detention’ from his Astana team after failing to offer the expected heroic defence of his Tour de France title, insult was added to injury after he was disqualified for taking a wing mirror tow from his team car. Nibali’s early exit was forgotten as the first ten days racing witnessed the emergence of two riders to challenge the status quo among the GC contenders. Astana hadn’t made too much fuss about Nibali; they were geared towards Fabio Aru taking a first grand tour victory. Lining up against them, albeit not so ‘fresh’ from the Tour were Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. The Vuelta’s knack of throwing up a surprise or two was evident in the relegation of the star names of the peloton to supporting roles as first Esteban Chavez and the Tom Dumoulin were the story of the first half of the race.

Fabio Aru - chance gone?
Fabio Aru – chance gone?

Chavez and Dumoulin had shared the race lead between them and taken three stage wins. Chavez was the ‘winner’ as far as quantity but Dumoulin was arguably the most impressive overhauling Froome to win stage 9 on a short but steep hill top finish near Calpe. It was Dumoulin who wore the leaders jersey after the race had transferred from the southern Spain to Andorra but with the sharks tooth profile of stage 11 ahead you would have been forgiven for thinking that if anyone’s luck was about to run out it would be Dumoulin’s.

Instead the first casualty and second big name to exit the race was Froome. There have been enough incidents on this years edition of the Vuelta to satisfy the lawyers for years but the exact circumstances of what caused Sky’s team leader to break a bone in his foot aren’t crystal clear. The official version is that another rider collided with Froome causing him to hit an obstacle at the side of the road. That this rider hasn’t (yet) been identified suggests that it might have  been what insurance companies call a 50:50 accident but that shouldn’t detract from an extremely gutsy performance from Froome to ride to the finish when it was clear afterwards that just walking a few steps to the car was difficult. We won’t know if he was able to challenge for the GC but it does look like the riders who went well at the Tour are struggling here, albeit for different reasons. Geraint Thomas gave Froome a wheel to follow and pretty much ended his chances of being a factor in the race but Mikel Nieve has emerged from their shadow and looks likely of delivering his best ever result in any grand tour.

Nieve wasn’t the best Sky rider on stage 11, that went to Ian Boswell who looks a far better rider than when he was hanging off the back of the peloton in Paris Nice in 2013. Otherwise the top ten was compiled with the names you would have expected to see at the sharp end of a very difficult 158km stage. Dumoulin did lose the race lead to Aru but by less time than many would have predicted. In fact Dumoulin came in just over a minute and half back on Aru in company with Chavez who had pretty much wheel sucked the Dutchman up the final climb. While Aru took the jersey he didn’t win the stage. Sky bound Mikel Landa stuck a metaphorical finger up at his current employer by turning a deaf ear to requests that he should wait for his team leader and soloed to victory. The result saw Dumoulin drop to third behind Aru and Purito Rodriguez the ‘designer’ of the stage if you were to believe Carlton Kirby on Eurosport.

Aru kept the lead until yesterday (stage 16) but the narrative of the race has been less about him and his successor on GC Rodriguez than about Dumoulin. Only 30 seconds down on Aru following stage 11 Dumoulin has become the story to the extent that the other teams seemed to change their respective strategies to one focused solely on putting time into him ahead of the TT (stage 17). Under ‘normal’ circumstances the stage might have been in two parts with Dumoulin and (say) Fabian Cancellara putting down a marker for the world championships and the GC guys attempting to gap their rivals. Instead we have the prospect of Dumoulin assuming the race lead once more and potentially holding it to win the Vuelta overall.

This has as much to do with Dumoulin being the surprise package on GC as for the fact that Aru seems to missing the last few ingredients that would have allowed him to get a grip on the race. With only a one second lead over Rodriguez ahead of yesterdays stage Aru had his ‘worst’ day out of the last three as Dumoulin was having his best. Rodriguez had done the damage on stage 15 with a 15 second advantage over Aru plus a 10 second bonification on the line to allow him to touch the hem of Aru’s leaders jersey. A day later it was on Purito’s shoulders as Aru had to come from behind to try and limit his losses.

And so we have the prospect of a watchable TT stage. Of course now that Dumoulin is no longer a surprise the talk is of not will he win the stage but by how much. With Nibali and Froome long gone there isn’t a decent tester in the top 10 with the possible exception of Quintana (remember him?). The Vuelta may yet have more surprises in store. There are a few more cat 1 climbs for the peloton to get over before the race reaches Madrid but we’re done as far as summit finishes are concerned. The Vuelta in its current incarnation has developed a habit of delivering a curve ball for us. Might this year’s curve ball be a Tom Dumoulin victory?

Just a perfect day..

Gent Wevelgem 2015 

Every now and again, often when you least expect it, you get to see a fantastic bike race. Let’s be honest sometimes watching racing can be the equivalent of a mid-table mid week nil nil football match. I stick with it, mostly because I’m a fan and this is my chosen sport. But I also try to watch every race, be it one day or stage of a tour because every now and again cycling delivers something special. I have sat through hours of live coverage on a day that’s promised fireworks only to end up feeling disappointed with the realisation that I could have been out riding my bike rather than watching someone else riding theirs. But then there are days like Sunday. There are days were I count myself lucky that I could see a race like Gent Wevelgem 2015.

And this was an unexpected gem. It was a first for the race being shown live via Eurosport rather than some moody feed off a website. The #HomeofCycling had served up a veritable buffet for the armchair fan this week with the Volta Catalunya, E3 Harelbeke and the Criterium International all showing in addition to Sunday’s offering. This was going to involve some juggling with the remote control and the DVR to make sure that I didn’t miss any of the action. It also required a bit of thought about what to watch live; the crit a like final stage up and over Montjuic in the Volta or go straight into GW. As things worked out (read as the clocks going forward) I ended up missing all but the last 10km of the Volta anyway and there was still plenty of racing left to do in Flanders.

And talk about the perfect time to tune in. As the peloton clawed its way forward up an arrow straight tree lined road I watched echelons beginning to form as riders who were unlucky enough to find themselves isolated leaned 45 degrees into the wind to try and stay on their bikes. The conditions in Gent Wevelgem are nothing like the whole story of the race but they were a vital factor in the racing that followed adding a mixture of drama, suspense and dare I say it amusement (for me at least). We have already lost some of the main protagonists for the classics due to injury this year and I don’t want to see any riders get (badly) hurt but even some of the riders who fell victim to the wind on Sunday could see the funny side of being blown into ditches from what I saw on social media today.

The difficulty that some riders had trying to stay in touch blew the peloton apart at this point. We got a glimpse of Mark Cavendish struggling to get back on after a puncture. We didn’t get so much as a mention of Bradley Wiggins who tends to think racing in these kind of conditions is a bit of mugs game. It didn’t take long until for the key elements to detach and set the scene for the next 80 or so kilometres.

Much of the talk as far as Sky’s classics campaign was concerned pre-season had centred on Wiggins targeting Paris Roubaix. As things got underway the team got off to a good start with Ian Stannard repeating in Het Neiuwsblad but things unravelled badly in Milan San Remo. Stand out performer there was Geraint Thomas who destroyed himself to try and set up Ben Swift for the win to no avail. A week later and all of that had changed though. It may have been of click-baiting on my part to suggest that Sky had cocked up their classics campaign but I think the view I advanced that they needed a big result in the forthcoming races was right on the money. It might be splitting hairs to say that Thomas winning E3 on Friday isn’t a big win but as far as Sky’s classics performance is concerned 2015 has become their best showing to date.

Luca Paolini
Luca Paolini

Thomas was in the thick of things again on Sunday, part of a select group that had got away in pursuit of Lotto Soudal’s Jurgen Roelandts. With Thomas were Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh, Roelandt’s Lotto teammate Jens Debusschere, BMC’s Daniel Oss and after jumping across later Niki Terpstra and Luca Paolini.

Every now and again the host broadcaster would briefly cut back to the peloton if only to confirm that they hadn’t all decided to call it a day, but the bulk of the camera work was focused on Roelandts battling against the elements alone and the machinations of the chasing group as Debusschere enjoyed a free ride and Etixx teammates Terpstra and Vandenbergh tried to work out a winning strategy. Roelandts cushion to his pursuers evaporated as he blew up under a combination of the final climbs and a head wind and with around 20kms to go the race was back together.

Over the same climbs Oss faded and fellow Italian Paolini who had been the last rider to make it across looked as if he was losing the tow as well. Out of all of the riders in the group however Paolini is blessed with the kind of smarts that will make him a formidable DS in the future. Thomas looked as if he was just holding on, understandably after his win less than 48 hours earlier and Vanmarcke and Debusschere didn’t look as if they had much fight left in them either. Thus Etixx found themselves in a similar position to one they have found themselves in a few times this season; a numerical advantage but seemingly no idea of how to make it count. Whether or not Paolini sensed the indecision or just decided to go for it I don’t know, but he attacked and then spent the remainder of the race in the big ring while Terpstra and Vandenbergh wondered what had happened.

Paolini celebrated ‘his greatest win’ by humbly admitting that he would be back working for Alexander Kristoff in the Ronde next weekend. Terpstra shook his head as he crossed the line, partly in disbelief at how he and his teammate had thrown away a potential victory and (also) no doubt anticipating an almighty bollocking from Patrick Lefevere later that night. Under the circumstances there was no disgrace in finishing third for Thomas. Roelandts, arguably the ‘man of the match’ managed a rueful smile as he beat the peloton home in 7th.

I was completely gripped by Gent Wevelgem to the extent that next Sunday’s Ronde is going to have to been something special for me to rank it above yesterday’s race. Even Mrs VCSE was sucked in by the drama and it takes a lot to drag her away from her smartphone. Unpredictable conditions, a plucky underdog, an engrossing tactical battle and a worthy and likeable winner. This race had it all. If you didn’t manage to see it Eurosport will probably show a highlights package of sorts up to the start of the 3 days of De Panne on Tuesday afternoon. After that seek it out on YouTube. You will be glad that you did.

* feature image is the  key Kemmelberg  climb in Gent Wevelgem  from a previous year’s race 

Going around in CIRC’les – VCSE’s Racing Digest #40

Paris Nice 2015

I normally enjoy both of the week long early season stage races but a number of distractions over the last couple of weeks kept me from seeing much in the way of live racing. Fortunately, Eurosport gives me plenty of opportunities to catch up via their highlights programme. Out of the two races I think the one that provided the most interest was Paris Nice, particularly after Chris Froome’s late pull out from Tirreno denied us the next instalment of his match up with Alberto Contador. Paris Nice 2015 returned to its traditional format with an opening prologue and finishing with the Col d’Eze TT. And in a repeat of the last time the race followed this format in 2013 Richie Porte took his second overall win and stage victories on the only summit finish and the Col d’Eze.

Other than going down briefly, descending in poor conditions on the penultimate stage Porte looked like the real deal when it mattered without actually holding the race lead until he finished on Sunday. The holder of the yellow jersey for much of the race was world champion Michael Kwiatowski, the winner of the prologue and well looked after by his Etixx teammates through much of the early stages. Kwiatowski, who is the Polish TT champion was only a second down on Porte going into the last stage but he couldn’t match Porte’s pace in the TT.

If we base things purely on this outcome Porte looks ready to challenge for the GC in this year’s Giro and barring accidents he shouldn’t have his ambitions to lead a team in grand tour overturned by Sky’s need to protect Chris Froome in the Tour (as happened in 2013). If early season form is anything to go by Sky look in fantastic shape grand tour wise with real strength in depth and enough talent to potentially challenge in the Giro and Tour. For Kwiatowski, things don’t look quite so clear GC wise. Tony Martin showed that the massive pulls he put in during last years Tour were not a one off, but he’s really not the kind of climbing domestique that Kwiatowski will need to protect him in a three week grand tour. Of course, none of this could be part of the plan for Etixx although I suspect that the team will look for a decent showing if they’re unable to land one of the monuments in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere it was honours even in the battle to be the best French sprinter with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare finishing ahead of each other twice in the bunch finishes. Neither managed a win (a second place apiece) with Bouhanni edging Demare with his placings. Bouhanni needs to win to add weight to his claims that he should have been the supported rider at FDJ last year. Demare as the rider who stayed has to justify his team’s decision to back him ahead of the other rider. Of course it’s still early days, but I don’t expect either rider to kick on in 2015 in the same way as Elia Viviani say.

The winner of Saturday’s stage into Nice was Lotto rider Tony Gallopin. While the French rider probably didn’t have the time trialling chops to protect a lead of less than a minute from Porte up the Col d’Eze he did show that last years performance during the Tour in the Vosges wasn’t a one off. For a team that’s likely to feed off scraps in 2015 it’s likely that Gallopin will be one of the big hopes to deliver a breakaway win.

Tirreno Adriatico 2015

Tirreno was the lesser of the two races for me this year. I enjoyed Wout Poels breakaway win on stage 5. I think he’s a great signing for Sky and the teams line up for the Volta Catalunya this week suggests that Poels will be one of Chris Froome’s key supporters at the Tour. As Poels took the race lead as well as the stage win on Saturday I found myself wondering if he could actually go for the win. All of this daydreaming was proved to be just that within 24 hours as Nairo Quintana delivered the kind of emphatic win that characterised his Giro win last year. The weather was pretty Giro like as well with the last few km’s ridden in blizzard conditions. Quintana obviously didn’t feel the cold and he looked about as happy and animated as I have ever seen him winning by 41 seconds and taking the race lead. Vincenzo Nibali, in comparison, looked like he was having a horrible time and would rather be anywhere else than the race he won as recently as 2013. Another rider who enjoyed a less than stellar Tirreno was Alberto Contador. Lack of form or lack of Froome. Who knows? For the other two grand tour winners of 2014 it was a week to forget.

After I semi wrote him off in my last post Peter Sagan took the final bunch sprint in pouring rain on Monday. Actually, I was reflecting on the increased pressure Sagan is under to deliver a big win to justify is multi-million Euro contract at Tinkoff Saxo but the win will restore some confidence to the rider. Other commentators who can draw on better connections with the team are suggesting that Sagan is bullish about his chances of landing a monument in 2015, but I’m still not convinced that it will happen this Spring. I’ll predict here that Sagan’s best showing in the monuments in 2015 (other than placing in Milan San Remo) will be later in the year in the Giro d’Lombardia.

It was good to see MTN Quhbeka get a result with Steve Cummings finishing just behind Contador with 6th place on GC. MTN have retained the services of Brian Smith in 2015 and he’s signed some big(ish) names for the African team. I’m not entirely sure how all of these riders are going to gel and even less clear on how they intend to win. Gerard Ciolek’s breakout win for the team in the 2013 edition of MSR put them firmly on the world stage and if nothing else the profile has been further raised by Smith’s signings for 2015. Invites to the grand tours have followed, but unlike 2009 where Smith also had a hand in the launch of the Cervelo Test Team these riders don’t look like they will deliver a repeat of Ciolek’s monument. I think there are too many sprinters and these aren’t riders who have been winning regularly either. I would really like to see MTN go well as I like a lot of the personalities involved in the team but I think they will be living off scraps in 2015 too. They do have the best looking bikes in the peleton though!

CIRC report

Paris Nice in particular started with the release of the CIRC report looming in the background. The headline pulled from the 200 plus page document was the “..90% of the peloton are doping” and this made most newspapers, radio and TV reports. If this claim is to be believed it’s not great news for the sport. As I have commented previously the challenge for the sport is to provide stories that will attract sponsors into the sport. We have seen new team sponsors this year and there’s a real resurgence in interest in countries like Germany who pretty much abandoned coverage after the doping scandals of the late 2000’s. The situation remains fragile though and how riders, teams and the UCI deal with the fallout from CIRC will be incredibly important for the sport to grow.

Taking women’s cycling as an example. The UCI have delivered some improvements to the race schedule and there seems to be an appetite to show more of the women’s races in 2015. Achieving parity with the men is not helped by negative stories coming from the men’s peloton. Like it or not, women’s cycling will continue to rely on the trickle down of investment and interest in the men’s for the next year or two. It goes without saying that potential investment lost to world tour and pro conti teams will impact on the women’s peloton too. Not least the suggestion that (at least) each world tour team should run a ladies team with a full race programme as well.

The 90% comment was polarizing as so much of the quotes in the report were unattributed. While riders (past and present) subsequently revealed that they had spoken to the CIRC committee, Chris Froome was the only current rider that allowed his name to go into the published document. Thankfully, Froome wasn’t made the lightning rod as a result of his preparedness to put his name to the report. I have been critical of Sky’s use of TUE’s (one of the major examples given in the report of where there is huge potential for abuse) and I though it was interesting that Froome withdrew from Tirreno this year citing a chest infection. Would this have happened 12 months ago? As I say, whatever people might think of Froome and / or Sky I thought he deserved some credit for putting his name to the report.

Of course, there were many conflicting views as to whether or not the report had gone far enough in both revealing and / or confirming some of the doping stories surrounding the sport and what should be done to improve the situation. My own take is that the report didn’t reveal much that was new and perhaps that was why the recommendations had a lightweight feel. Credit to Brian Cookson for commissioning the report as I couldn’t imagine this happening previously at the UCI. That in itself is progress.

There are some commentators who believe that anyone connected to doping in the past should be unable to take part in the sport. While I understand the view I take a more pragmatic approach that recognises that it would be pretty much impossible to unpick cycling apart in such away. I think there remains an opportunity to provide riders and staff past and present with the platform to ‘fess up, even if this would be a somewhat flawed process. Say, rider A a current member of the peloton comes forward and admits doping previously. Where is the statute of limitations that says that the rider should be banned now for something they did previously, one year ago? Two? Of course this is where the ‘ban them all’ approach seems appealing, but my gut feel is that it’s likely that in the not too recent past 90% of the peloton were doping. I don’t think that the sport would survive the loss of so many riders. That doesn’t excuse the offence or mean that I think that everyone who doped previously should be given a hall pass. i just think that the approach and solution as far as doping catharsis is concerned is a lot more nuanced.

A final CIRC related thought. Brian Cookson (and others) have come out strongly against Lance Armstrong taking part in Geoff Thomas’ cancer charity ride that will take place ahead of this years Tour. Thomas, an ex professional footballer is another cancer survivor and I was pleased to see him taking a stand in favour of Armstrong’s continued involvement. I have no issue with the sanctions that Armstrong faces as a cyclist, even extending to his wish to participate in Ironman’s. However, I cannot see how anyone can deny Armstrong’s cancer. Thomas discusses Armstrong’s presence as a part of his rehabilitation in the cancer community. While the vehicle in this case is a bike I think the decision to involve Armstrong or not belongs with Thomas and the charity he is raising money for. Some people may see this as yet another example of Armstrong’s cynicism but i’m prepared to take his professed motivation at face value on this one.

What do you do with a rider like Valverde?* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #22

Ruta del Sol 2014

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.

Not everyone's favourite - Alejandro Valverde
Not everyone’s favourite – Alejandro Valverde

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

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

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.

* with apologies to ‘The Sound of Music’

500 channels and there’s nothing on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #21

It’s the beginning of the road racing season with the traditional (at least of recent years) season openers; the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the Tour de San Luis. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that VCSE was tuning into the Tour of Lombardy the last race of note each year. ‘The race of the falling leaves’ might be more accurately nick named ‘The race of the falling rain’. If 2013 was anything to go by it didn’t seem that a race could be held in Italy without an accompaniment of torrential rain. The UCI’s choice to stage the early world tour races in far from the european winter has less to do with a search for warm weather as a money making opportunity; witness the introduction of a stage race for Dubai this year. The ‘desert’ races in Qatar and Oman are worth a watch for the chance to see which sprint train is functioning the best and an early indicator of GC form respectively.

Simon Gerrans - TDU GC winner
Simon Gerrans – TDU GC winner

Before the peloton gets sand blown however they must journey south for the world tours solitary visits to the South American and Australian continents. Both races feature a mixture of stages with options for breakaway or sprint finishes. We say all this with the proviso that we haven’t actually watched any footage from either event! If you’re a cycling fan and want to watch races, either live or highlights, then it’s pretty much essential to have Eurosport. Whether that’s via some kind of TV or cable subscription or via the channels own web app Eurosport will have more coverage of more races than any other channel. Part of Eurosport’s charm is that they don’t just cover the races you expect like Paris Roubaix of the Tour. It’s often possible to tune in randomly and find that their live coverage of an obscure cat 2 race from some French back water. These are often the best races to watch if you yearn for a dominant team performance from FDJ or AG2R, who often appear to be there just to fill gaps in the peloton in the major races.

The TDU and San Luis aren’t covered by Eurosport so getting to see either race can involve some difficulties. Correction, getting to see the TDU is easy if you shell out further for Sky Sports. Sky seem to be taking a wait and see approach to snapping up the rights for the races that are currently covered by Eurosport. This might seem surprising considering their four year old and ongoing sponsorship of a world tour team, but for now at least, they have contented themselves with one or two races lower profile stage races shown live and highlights from the Giro. It may yet happen that Sky outbid ITV for their live rights to the Tour in 2015 and that may in turn have implications for those of us that rely on Eurosport. Sky don’t appear to be concerned at the likely loss of viewers if the Tour moves from its current terrestrial berth, no doubt reassured that they will recoup any investment via advertising revenues. It would be ironic if the one professional sport that doesn’t require a ticket to watch live would require an increasing level of subscription for the armchair fan.

So what are the options for the non Sky endowed to keep up with the action from down under? Ironically, the local broadcasters do offer a very good live web stream. The problem for the UK viewer is that accessing this directly from someone like SBS is blocked; this even applies to their YouTube highlights. Just as VCSE used to sit glued to teletext in the days before rolling 24 hour sports news, the (comparatively) low tech way to follow a race live is often via social media. Ironically Sky provide one of the best live feeds via their Twitter, if restricted to the races where they are competing. More of the world tour teams are starting to pick up on this idea of keeping the fans updated and it isn’t exclusive to the big outfits with smaller teams like Madison Genesis doing the same from the Tour series last year.

A constantly updated timeline from Sky works wonderfully when you can’t get closer to the action. It comes into it’s own when you’re actually at the side of the road during a race too, helping to work out when the race will flash by. The only time Sky’s regular Twitter updates during a stage can frustrate is when you are planning to watch ‘as live’ from a recording later in the day. VCSE’s evening in front of the telly has been ruined on more than once by inadvertently seeing a Sky tweet on our timeline. Less likely to appear for every race, but always around for the key ones is NYvelocity (@nyvelocity) if you want to laugh along with a race.

In race social media commentary from the riders might provoke controversy, although it would be interesting to have some open mics around to listen in to the conversations through the window of the team car. VCSE doesn’t claim to slavishly follow the output of every member of the peloton, but pre and post race some riders are better value than others. Jens Voigt and Taylor Phinney spring to mind as two that can be relied upon to say something a little less anodyne.

When it comes to stats there’s plenty to choose from. VCSE is never too many clicks from Steephill.TV during the season (see the links page) for details of who finished where and aggregation of the best reporting and video. Innrg (go to the links page again) does a regular feature about where the race was won. Cycling News is probably the best news source within the UK, but there are often (more) interesting perspectives from elsewhere in the world. Velonews (US) and Cycling Tips (Australia) are worth a bookmark.

So, what is the VCSE take on the opening week of 2014 road race season? Orica’s Simon Gerrans won a record third TDU title to go with his second Australian road race jersey. The Aussie outfit had a bit of breakthrough year in 2013 with Gerrans wearing yellow at the Tour. That Matt White’s return as DS after his doping ban coincided with this suggests that the team could be one to watch in the classics this season. Gerrans is a previous winner at Milan San Remo and if his form continues could be worth a punt in 2014.

Five seconds off the GC and a stage winner during the week was Lampre’s Diego Ulissi. The Italians have under performed in the last few years but a management shake up in the off season might suggest that Ulissi’s podium could be the first of many. Lampre have the world champion Rui Costa on their Merida’s this season and he’s a rider capable of freelancing some wins in 2014. The fact that the new team uniform is less lairy than recent years (the fluro pink has been turned down) must help too surely! With a further stage win taken by Sacha Modelo on the final stage at San Luis Lampre start the year at the dizzy heights of 4th in the UCI team rankings.

Is Marcel Kittel’s misfiring sprint cause for concern? This early in the season; probably not and it isn’t as if Kittel hasn’t won already this year (at the TDU prequel). Andre Greipel took two stage wins but takes the VCSE award for the best team kit of this year in Lotto’s homage to Merckx and Molteni. Talking of sprinters Mark Cavendish wasn’t able to repeat a stage win in Argentina with Tom Boonen finishing the stronger in the bunch sprints. Last year Cav went from San Luis to the overall in Qatar. Last year was a disaster for Boonen. Cavendish has complained in the past that his Omega Pharma team need to make up the mind what kind of team they want to be. Could it be that everything will be focused on getting Boonen in top condition for the classics at the expense of early season wins for Cavendish?

In a nutshell then, the VCSE predictions for the early season; another tilt at Milan San Remo for Gerrans, Lampre resurgent and all for Boonen at Omega Pharma.

Should be an interesting watch..