VCSE’s Giro 2014 Preview

The first of this year’s grand tours begins on Friday in Belfast. Unless you’re a resident of the Emerald Isle the 2014 edition of the Giro d’Italia feels a bit low key. Last year’s route promised epic stages with classic climbs like the Stelvio and Gavia and a match up between Vincenzo Nibali racing for his home tour against the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins. As things turned out Wiggins never really offered much of a challenge for the Maglia Rosa and mother nature intervened to curtail or even cancel the marquee stages.

Vincenzo Nibali - Giro 2013 Winner
Vincenzo Nibali – Giro 2013 Winner

There’s been something of a changing of the guard since then with Wiggins pretty much finished as a grand tour GC contender and with Chris Froome how seen as the man to beat Nibabli will not defend his title, choosing instead to race against Froome in the Tour. Giro organisers will miss Nibabli but will somewhat happier if they manage to avoid any positive drug tests this year (even posthumously). Last year’s wild card entry Vini Fantini had questionably included admitted doper Danilo Diluca in their line up and his subsequent positive for EPO suggested that this particular leopard couldn’t change it’s spots.

So this years race lacks much of a narrative outside of the three stages that will take place in Ireland over the coming weekend. The GC contenders aren’t from the first rank (with the possible exception of Joaquim Rodriguez) , but this could actually make for a more interesting race and the chance that the final GC positions could be decided in the final week.

Riders to watch at the 2014 Giro

With Nibali missing Astana have handed the team leadership to Michele Scarponi. He’ll be backed by a decent group of domestiques, but it’s hard to see him as the potential winner. VCSE is surprised to see Scarponi attracting stronger odds than Garmin’s Dan Martin, although this is probably due to Scarponi’s likely consistency which should see him safely inside the top 10. Martin is Garmin’s GC leader for this years race, even though 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal is also present. Jonathan Vaughters wants Martin to step up and show he can be a feature in a three week stage race and the ‘Irishman’ seems to be taking some form into the race. VCSE suspects that Martin will fade early on, but may come back with a big stage win towards the end of the race.

The bookies favourtite is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. The Columbian who swept up a podium place and the KOM and young rider jerseys at last years Tour still has to play second fiddle to Alejandro Valverde in the Spanish sponsored team so he leads at the Giro. The story unravels a little when you remember that Quintana hasn’t done anything much this season. Last year he could point to a stage race win in the Basque country. This year; nothing like that. It feels a little bit like Quintana is being promoted on the back of his results from last year. Undoubtably talented, VCSE just isn’t sure Quintana has the legs this year. He might be a rider that stays out of trouble until the big mountain stages and then come to the fore, but if Quintana doesn’t work it’s hard to see Movistar snatching stage wins the way they did in 2013.

We’ve already mentioned Joaquim Rodriguez who targeted the Giro early in the year in the hope that he could make the step from podium to winner in a grand tour. He’s collected a podium at all three grand tours now and feels that he has unfinished business at the Giro after going so close in 2012. Trouble is he’s carrying an injury from his classics appearances and unless he’s undergone some sort of miracle cure in the last two weeks he isn’t going to figure and might even be an abandon before the race is over. J-Rod isn’t attracting great odds, but the bookies money looks safe based on actual racing.

Another rider who targetted the race early is BMC’s Cadel Evans. Unlike Rodriguez, Evans has form too with a win in the Giro del Trentino in the last few weeks. Evans was a bit of surprise package in last years race, pretty much written off beforehand, but doggedly clinging on in the GC to finish a distant third to Nibabli. In the absence of stronger opposition and supposing VCSE has got it right so far with our predictions Evans should be disappointed if he doesn’t get a repeat appearance on the Giro podium and maybe even go one or two places better than 2013. Last years podium triumvate was rounded out with Rigoberto Uran, then of Sky now of Omega Pharma Quick Step. Subject of the OPQS ‘are we a GC team?’ schizo transfer policy Uran must have thought he had arrived when he joined the team. Unfortunately, for Uran it’s been ‘Mo’money.. mo’ problems’ as his form has dipped and he looks emasculated by Michael Kwiatowski. The saving grace for Uran is that Kwiatowski will race the Tour and Uran will lead in Italy. Can he forget that his team wonder why they spent the money and do something (maybe even remind them why they spent the money in the first place)? It will be interesting to see which Uran turns up on Friday.

There’s a few outsiders to keep a look out for; good bets for the top ten or a stage win or two. Tinkoff Saxo will be led by Nico Roche who came of age in last years Vuelta and who has really grown in stature since joing Bjarne Riis’ team. Roche kept up bravely when the climbs went into double digit inclines in Spain and unless he’s developed an extra gear in the off season he will probably come similarly undone in Italy. He’s a good shout for a medium mountain stage and top ten finish. Leading Roche’s old team AG2R is Domenico Pozzovivo an Italian in a French team, a possible KOM or stage winner and a likely top ten contender.

Last years points jersey was taken by Mark Cavendish, giving him a points victory in each of the grand tours. As with the Tour the points jersey in the Giro is not a shoe in for a sprinter and many expected Cavendish to abandon his attempt rather than take on the highest climbs. The fact that his nearest rival for the Maglia Rosso was Evans indicates how hard Cavendish had to work, right up until the final day, to win. It’s less likely that a sprinter will claim the prize this year unless Marcel Kittel decides that any Cav can do, he can do also. Rather like the GC, the remainder of the sprint pack are of the second rank, although Elia Viviani’s recent wins in Turkey suggest that he could do damage. Doing damage, if not actually winning anything the two wheel equivilant of hand grenades with their pins removed are FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni and Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari.

VCSE’s Giro 2014 GC Tips 

1. Quintana 2. Evans 3. Uran 

Stages to watch at the 2014 Giro 

Stage 3 – Armagh to Dublin 

OK so this stage is proceeded by another sprint stage but when the race crosses the border into the south we’ll see how much the Giro has really been taken to Irish hearts. This is stage to be watched as much for the crowds as it will be for the actual result. Kittel could claim the Maglia Rosa ahead of the peloton’s return to Italy on Tuesday.

Stage 6 – Sassano to Monte Cassino

Scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second world war this is one of the longest stages in the race and finishes with a climb to the monastery. Mostly flat for the majority of the stage, it’s not much of climb so might fall to a puncheur or a late break.

Stage 8 – Foligno to Monte Copiolo

A cat 1 followed by a cat 2 with another cat 1 summit finish should see the first GC selection and round of the first week proper of this years Giro.

Stage 14 – Aglie to Oropa 

A week after stage 8 and another cat 1, 2, 1 combination and summit finish to further shake up the GC. If the race does follow a similar pattern to last year, we will know the winner at the end of this stage. If…

Stage 16 – Ponte di Legno to Val Martello Martelltal

The stage that never was from last year with the Stelvio and Gavia tackled in one day and a summit finish thrown in for fun. RCS will be praying for good weather.

Stage 19 – Bassano del Grappa to Cima Grappa

To get over the climbs of the Giro and lose the race in a time trial could seem unfair, but this TT is straight up. If some GC riders can take an advantage through a stronger team this stage is about one rider against the climb and the clock only. If stage 19 does decide the outcome of the 2014 Giro the winner will deserve his victory.

Stage 20 – Maniago to Monte Zoncolan 

The race may have already been one, but the finish will still be spectacular. Perhaps the only marquee climb that was missing from last years race and given star billing this year.

GeneralPlanGiro2014
Giro 2014 Route

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..

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

Team of the Year 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rider of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race of the Year 

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

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

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

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

A victory for old men and baldies – VCSE’s Racing Digest #19

Vuelta a Espana final week

What a difference a week makes. In our last post we wondered whether or not Chris Horner would have be able to continue to bring the fight to (at that time) race leader Vincenzo Niblai in the final week of Spain’s grand tour. Horner was lying in second place, 50 seconds behind as the race entered its final week and its final day in the Pyrenees. 

Français : Christopher Horner au Tour de Calif...
Christopher Horner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weekend stages from week 2 suffered the misfortune of poor weather in proportion to how much they had been built up by the organisers and in previews. Inclement weather had a similar impact on the high mountain stages in the Giro earlier this year also and there was a slight feeling of anticlimax as the Vuelta entered its final week. The second week of the race had lacked some of the drama of the first week too. With one stage to go before the second rest day Nibali looked comfortable and unlike the earlier stages when the leaders jersey had seemed like a burden he was unwilling to shoulder by the end of the second week the Sicilian and his Astana teammates were geared to defend the lead.

If the wheels didn’t completely fall off for Nibali on stage 16 they were severely loosened. Horner far from fading was showing signs of being the stronger of the two GC rivals as Nibali cracked for the first time.

But first we had more signs of potential renaissance for French Cycling as Warren Barguil won a second stage. In the break again as with his earlier stage victory Barguil was caught as the ramps of the final climb steepened. It’s perhaps crediting Barguil with the experience of, say, a Chris Horner to suggest that his second win was planned that way. Maybe Sky’s Rigoberto Uran burnt to many matches catching the Frenchman. Whatever the tactics, or sheer good fortune on display it was Barguil that outsprinted everyone to the line, if you can sprint up a 10% ramp.

As Barguil crossed the line to yet more ‘the new Hinault’ comparisons there was drama unfolding in the GC further down the climb. Joaquim Rodriguez attacked and only Horner could respond. Nibali found himself on the back of the small group of remaining GC riders. As Horner extended the gap the Astana rider was being overhauled by the lower reaches of the top 10 like Net App’s Leopold Konig. In what would become a bit of a theme for the race Alejandro Valverde, unable to match the sharp bursts of acceleration of a Rodriguez or Nibali, often got back on as normal speeds resumed. He and Thibaut Pinot, having something of a grand tour rehabilitation on the Vuelta, were with Horner as he crossed the line. As Nibali finished the stage Horner was 22 seconds closer to the man that, for now at least, retained the race lead.

The final ‘flat’ stage came on Wednesday and the last chance for the sprinters before the finale in Madrid on Sunday. However, another theme of this years race has been the unexpected happening and stage 17 was no different. With so many of the first line sprinters missing from the race a winner emerging from an unheralded source or a win for someone less recognised for their fast leg was a distinct possibility. As the teams tried to get themselves organised with all of the coordination of herding cats a Belkin rider sprang clear from the bunch with some way still to go. There seems to be a collective blink from the peloton when this happens along the lines of “He didn’t? Did he?”. That the man going clear was Tour top 10 finisher and sometime GC contender Bauke Mollema explains the collective surprise of the bunch. By the time the peloton had pinched themselves and got into gear the damage had been done and Belkin had their prize to take home from Spain.

The GC would be decided on the next three stages that all featured summit finishes. Sky were another team who had quickly shed their GC ambitions with Sergio Henao looking exposed pretty much as soon as the race started going uphill on stage 2. With his compatriot (and probably the better hope for GC) Rigoberto Uran bound for Omega Pharma Sky refocused their ambitions towards stage wins. Sky’s domestiques have looked a bit more human since the Tour and it was surprise Tour withdrawl Vasil Kiryenka that delivered a consolation for Sky at the Vuelta. Kiryenka at least looked as if he found the going harder than he seemed to while riding like a metronome on the the front of the peloton in the early season races. Teams don’t hire riders like Kiryenka for stage wins and he actually smiled as he crossed the line. Nibali’s race was beginning to fall apart in a repeat of stage 16 as the GC approached the finish. As Horner rode away from him again the cushion that had lost a significant amount of stuffing on Monday was left almost empty by the end of stage 18.

Further down the GC Saxo’s Nicolas Roche was enjoying the sort of positive press the English speaking media often transfer to the Irish in the absence of a homegrown rider to cheer. Roche did a lot to generate this goodwill by being a willing and very open interviewee even when he had lost time during the second week. He was engaged in his own battle with Domenico Pozzovivo, riding for Roche’s old team AG2R, for 5th place. Vying with Roche for most cooperative with the media was Horner, always ready with something quotable, homespun or both. Inevitably for Horner, his age, the fact that he’s an ex teammate of Lance Armstrong and most importantly his performance led to questions about whether or not his race was something we should believe in. Unfortunately for the American this is where he has been less at ease in front of the microphone. Jens Voight commentating on ITV’s coverage suggested that Horner was perhaps “..less tired” than his rivals but the questions and doubts will probably continue to run parallel to the plaudits that have come Horner’s way.

Horner overhauled Nibali’s 3 second advantage on stage 19 and took the same margin into the penultimate day on the Alto de L’Angliru. Rodriguez had taken a few seconds back on Valverde by winning the previous day and the race to decide the podium positions would be the under card for the battle for the red jersey between Horner and Nibali. In the current issue of Pro Cycling magazine Nibali and his teammates talked about how they had upset the science of Sky’s attempt to win Tirreno Adriatico for Chris Froome by old fashioned tactics. This resonated during the stage as Astana put so many riders in the break an observer could have been forgiven for thinking that Nibali had already thrown in the towel. The Angliru represented less than 10% of the total distance of the stage but all the action took place on its unforgiving gradients. As riders from the break began to come back to the leaders Nibali attacked. Initially Horner and the others appeared to have nothing in response but slowly they were able to get back on to Nibali’s wheel. Nibali put in a number of accelerations as the climb went on but he never had the same distance he took in his first attack. At this point his teammates who had gone in the break should have come into play. Sean Kelly commented that he expected the Astana domestiques to “..stop and wait” for their team leader. No doubt part of the Astana post race inquiry will be to ask why they didn’t play their cards in hand better but the moment and advantage was lost.

The Angliru shrouded in fog represented something of war zone, sheer numbers of fans and the gradient preventing the camera bikes from keeping up with the action. As another French rider, FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde claimed the win and France’s best grand tour performance at least in terms of stages wins since 1990 we waited to see who would emerge from the clouds for the GC. Horner wasn’t able to maintain his out of the saddle for the entire climb but he was able to put 30 seconds plus into Nibali and all but confirm his victory in the Vuelta 2013.

Horner entered the race without a contract for next year; given his age this was not surprising. He has apparently been offered a year by Trek now and it’s not hard to imagine that they will want to milk the marketing opportunities that a ‘farewell’ race program for Horner and Voight could bring. This assumes that there won’t be any skeletons in the cupboard. Horner wants is to savour something that “…you may never see again”. Some commentators already see this as hubris. It says so much about the a current levels of trust in the sport that a ‘surprise’ win cannot be enjoyed as just that. Horner has won one of the premier events in the cycling calendar and the questions that come with that are inevitable. It’s also probably incumbent on anyone winning a major race these days to set out their position on doping. This may yet come, but VCSE suspects that questions will remain, sadly, about the provenance of the victory of the oldest ever grand tour winner.

Tour of Britain begins 

The week long Tour of Britain has begun and VCSE will be at the race again this year. There’s a really strong line up this year, surpassing even last year’s when the country was basking in Bradley Wiggins Tour victory and gold medals at the Olympics. Wiggins features again and is supposedly “motivated” for this years race. Sadly, Wiggins has been quoted similarly for his other ‘comeback’ races this year and he treated last years event with  a certain amount of disdain, riding back down the route at one point in search of a teammate before climbing off and abandoning.

The teammate that Wiggins was seeking to round up on that stage last year was Mark Cavendish and he is present again this year with Omega Pharma. Cav’s attempts to win opening stages of races hasn’t been going well of late and today’s finish in Scotland was no different. Omega Pharma’s latest incarnation of the Cavendish sprint train was present with Alessandro Petacchi. The misfires that have effected the squad all year were present too unfortunately and Cavendish had given up the chase long before the line. Petacchi was second and may expect to be reminded of what he’s been hired to do if Cav isn’t in the philosophical mood he was in after losing the last stage of the Tour.

Last years winner Jonathan Tiernan Locke is absent, Sky have selected him for the races currently taking place in Canada and JTL is in a team including Froome and Porte. They will no doubt argue that putting him in that squad is an indication of the importance of that series to them but for VCSE it’s perhaps another example of Sky’s PR mismanagement. Surely they can’t suggest that given the choice Tiernan Locke wouldn’t rather be in the UK. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the rider leaves the team at the end of his contract, if not sooner.

An interesting match up for the GC and certainly the time trial at the TOB will be Wiggins verses Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. Much is being made of the TT stage being run over the same 10 mile distance that is used by cycling clubs across the land. Dowsett attacked towards the end of today’s stage and VCSE suspects that he’s up for the challenge of beating the illustrious Sky team leader in their home race.

We will be at the race for the start of the penultimate stage on Saturday and will look to bring you pictures, video and comment from the day in our next post.

Curses! – VCSE’s Racing Digest #18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de Pologne 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

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

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

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

Omega Pharma for GC? 

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

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

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

Ride London  

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

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

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

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

Where’s Wiggo? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #6

So the Giro is the first grand tour of the year and with that a slightly different spin on the Racing Digest. The Digest is normally put together on a Sunday (or Monday latest) to reflect on the previous weeks racing or for the classics the same day. The challenge with a grand tour and even with some stage races is to try and reflect the big stories without missing the fractional elements that can later be described as ‘this was the moment when..’ etc. For now, we’re going to continue with the weekly post but this will be a compilation of the notes made on the actual day of the stage. This might lead to the kind of unforeseen circumstances where a rider can be described as super strong on one day, only to be out of contention the next. For a stage by stage narrative VCSE thinks it will make more sense to leave the notes on each stage unedited each day, instead of applying hindsight perspective at the end of the week.

Is this the right approach? If you would like to see daily grand tour updates please comment at the foot of the post.

As promised in the Giro preview VCSE will also be posting Giro highlights on our dedicated playlist. Where possible we will use footage with commentary in English but in some cases the best footage available is the official Giro video and this has Italian comms only. The playlist can also be viewed at the foot of the post.

Giro Stage 3 – Sorrento to Marina di Ascea 

The Giro’s fourth longest stage at 222km is just an aperitif for the second longest the day after. Leaving Sorrento Eurosport picked up the live feed before the stages two principal climbs sparing VCSE 70k’s of mostly straight roads (good choice!).

Français : Présentation des coureurs au départ...
Luca Paolini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The peloton had chased down the break by the start of final climb at Catona. Maglia Rosa Salvatore Puccio was minutes down at this point but the main contenders were all at the head of the race. Ryder Hesjedal looked super strong and made a solo break on the climb but sat up pretty quickly, perhaps just laying down a marker. The race got really animated on the descent. When a rider in the Kazak turquoise sped off everyone thought; Nibali. But no, it was Agnoli closely followed by Hesjedal. Hesjedal’s attack on the climb, followed by him leading on the descent fermented debate that went from pure speculation to pretty well informed. Garmin have ex pro Charly Wegelius as DS for the Giro and Twitter stalwart and Garmin owner Jonathan Vaughters pointed out that the safest place to be on a descent is often out front.

As the race came together again Het Nieuwsblad winner Luca Paolini pushed on. As opportunistic a win as his sub zero semi classic earlier in the year Paolini was more concerned with celebrating his victory than taking time off the rapidly closing pack. Nevertheless his advantage at the line (plus time bonuses) was enough  to put him into the leaders jersey. On a satorial note Paolini’s win was the first in a grand tour for the new style of ‘aero’ helmets* (well since the late 80’s). Most people have accepted the ‘science’ that there’s some kind of performance advantage to wearing one but are equally in agreement that they are not a good look.

With additional time bonuses on offer for the first finishers there was something to Paolini’s pursuers still to race for. Winner of the bunch sprint for non sprinters was.. Cadel Evans! A canny result and a few of the BMC leaders critics silenced. Evans remained outside the top 10 on GC but there’s lots of racing left. The biggest loser on the day was Lampre’s Michele Scarponi, losing his front wheel and ending up at the side of the road with a broken rear mech for his trouble. Your worst nightmare as a GC rider becoming reality and shared with a global television audience. Scarponi can shrug off the road rash but will need to dig deep to make up the time.

Bradley Wiggins remained in second, 17 seconds down on Paolini maintaining his 14 second advantage on Nibali. Hesjedal rode himself back into contention and was only 3 seconds down on Nibali in seventh.

*This may or may not be a fact. VCSE hasn’t seen one of the ugly things cross a line first this year but we are open to correction!

Giro stage 4 – Policastro Bussentino to Serra San Bruno 

With the benefit of hindsight this was probably not the best stage to watch live. Picking up the race with around 100 kilometres to go the remainder of the stage was run along the coast on pretty much entirely straight roads until the final two climbs at 40km from the line. Was the modern black top following the route of some ancient Roman road? We weren’t enlightened and made do with spotting ‘things you can see in the peloton’ for the first hour or so of Eurosport’s coverage. Even the moto’s were looking for ways to keep themselves amused and we were treated to an upside down shot of the field at one point. With Paolini in the Maglia Rosa, Sky were happy to let another team do the work on the front for a change and Katusha put in a big effort. Wiggins was able to sit back in the pack and catch up with Cavendish; cue much conversation on social media about whether or not Cav would be asking about the leadership at the Tour this year.

There was an early break which included the Giro’s first ever Greek entrant; Euskatel’s Ioannis Tamouridis. The main excitement this caused was when Androni’s Emanuele Sella was unceremoniously sent back to the peloton in disgrace for daring to take the virtual GC lead. The stage came back together with around 40km to go as the road began to climb properly. There were a number of brave solo efforts on the stage that warrant a mention. Euskatel’s Miguel Minguez Ayala managed to stay away the longest out of the original break, despite being handicapped at one point by his DS’s bizarre decision to hand him half a dozen bidons. As the final climb wound its way up around near 180 degree hairpins AG2R’s Sylvain George made a bid for a glory gaining nearly a minute twenty at one stage.

These two solo’s were topped by Vini Fantini veteran Danilo Di Luca (he does have an older teammate actually) who showed some class to get over the summit with something to spare and then provided a lesson in how to descend at speed in very wet conditions. It was always going to be touch and go for Di Luca to take the win and he bowed to the inevitable with a few hundred metres left and was overhauled by the group that included Paolini, Evans and Hesjedal.

The irony for Di Luca and Vini Fantini was that the stage was won by another Italian from a pro-conti team, this time a rider at the start of their career: Bardiani Valvolve’s Enrico Battaglin. A big win for the team after losing a major sponsor last year and a massive one for the rider. Paolini could look forward to another day in pink, but the big GC mover was Nibali who recovered from a late wheel change and picked up 17 seconds on Wiggins who dropped to 6th on the same time as Hesjedal*. Cadel Evans, who was in the mix at the finish picked up more places and moved into the top 10, 42 seconds down.

* Wiggins got caught up in someone else’s crash with less than 3km to go. Ordinarily he would have been awarded the same time as the group he had been in (Paolini etc.) but transponder info suggested Wiggins had already been dropped by the leading group at this point. The time lost could be crucial over a 3 week race.

Giro Stage 5 – Cosenza to Matera 

A similar profile to the previous days stage albeit shorter by 40 kilometres. The penultimate climb at Montecaglioso wasn’t worthy of a profile in the road book but proved enough of a challenge to shell some of the big names in sprinting. Beforehand the stage was at its most animated at the finish in Matera as torrential rain turned the finish straight into a fast flowing river.

There was a break up ahead but the peloton were in a relaxed mood on pretty much straight roads. The lack of action provided ample opportunity to discuss the ‘controversy’ of Bradley Wiggins losing time on yesterdays stage. Wiggins later admitted that he had been gapped on the run in which meant that one of the more lurid theories, Rigoberto Uran in league with Nibali to upset his team leader, could be discounted.

The English TV feed has featured a DS from each of the teams speculating on what types of rider the day’s stage will favour. Today’s representative Dirk Demol of Radioshack fancied a sprint finish and as the break was reeled in ahead of the final climbs it was the sprinters teams leading the chase. The best laid plans of Omega Pharma and Orica Greenedge fell apart going up Montecaglioso. Mark Cavendish, despite the attentions of three teammates was reduced to riding zigzags as the peloton split apart.

The riders had endured a downpour of their own at this point and the run in the finish in the hilltop town of Matera was still wet. With a series of 90 degree corners into the final uphill finish there was always the chance of a crash. The final bend featured rather more white road markings than you would choose if you had to take them at speed in the wet. One of John Degenkolb’s Argos Shimano lead out was down and in trying to avoid him another (larger) crash ensued. On the finishing straight it looked for a moment that a Bardiani rider was going to take another win but Degenkolb who had avoided the carnage too overtook and was a clear winner at the line. After yesterdays win by one of the new generation of pros; Battaglin it was fantastic to see Degenkolb take his first win since his anti doping statement issued last weekend.

With the final corner crash occurring within 3km of the finish the same time was applied to all finishers in the first group and with no splits the GC did not change from yesterday so Luca Paolini remains in pink for a third day.

Giro Stage 6 – Mola di Bari to Margherita di Savioa

A plan flat stage run on arrow straight roads in warm sunshine had the the peloton in end of term mood. One for the sprinters then, but John Degenkolb didn’t figure today, perhaps the Argos tactic will be to wait for something a bit more lumpy. So the contest would be between Cavendish and chief rivals; Bouhanni, Goss and Viviani.

Some scenes from the first 130 kilometres. Taylor Phinney in recovery mode at the back of the peloton performing the now obligatory ‘let’s do something amusing with the new Giro aero helmet’ with one of the Garmin riders. Not intentionally so, but much funnier were the three riders whose misplaced route saw them on the wrong side of some impressive looking central reservation barriers. The televison director delighted in providing lingering pull back shots from the helicopter to illustrate the hopelessness of their situation. Likely to find themselves needing to dodge oncoming traffic when the closed section of carrigeway was reopened the three eventually surrendered at the feed station and clambered over after handing their bikes over first.

The all Australian breakaway of Cameron Wurf (yes, him again) and Jack Bobridge (Blanco) were reeled in as the stage entered its criterium phase with two laps of a circuit around Margherita di Savioa. Taking in a tight turn before a narrow finishing straight a big crash involving most of the rear of the peloton created a real brain teaser as mechanics worked out how to unpick the interlocked riders and bikes from the pile blocking the road. Caught up in this was most of Team Sky who had gone back to escort Bradley Wiggins after a bike change. As the other teams realised that unblocking the road and matching bikes to riders was going to take some time, shuttle diplomacy began at the head of the race as riders with teammates back in the crash took turns to slow the peloton down. There’s a link to video of the crash below.

http://tinyurl.com/bpljkzd

Things had sorted themselves out as the final lap started. Wiggins mindful of what had happened a few kilometres earlier and of the 17 seconds lost on stage 4 provided the lead out for the sprinters until the race entered the final straight. It’s an aside, but seeing Wiggins like this; really pushing for the line, is a reminder of just how good he looks on a bike. With a big look of his shoulder to confirm that, yes he had gone under the 3km banner Wiggins relaxed guaranteed the same time as the first finisher.

And first over the line wasn’t really in much doubt as Mark Cavendish had Omega Pharma teammates in front of him. Unlike stage one, Cavendish didn’t really have to work for this one, only launching when the line was in touching distance. Elia Viviani was second again, but convincingly beaten this time. With Matt Goss third, the rider bashing the bars on the line was Nacer Bouhanni of FDJ who had been blocked on the run in. With no change in the GC Paolini retained the Maglia Rosa.

Giro Stage 7 – San Salvo to Pescara

Saturday’s individual time trial was meant to be the day when the Giro really started. Instead it was Friday’s stage to Pescara on a hilly route through the Abruzzo region that served up the drama. With no more than a category three climb to deal with the 177 kilometre stage could have been seen as fairly innocuous, but this is a part of Italy often crossed by the Tirreno Adriatico and what the hills lack in size they make up for gradient. For this stage changeable weather conditions added to the potential for error, unforced or otherwise, that could derail the GC chances of any of the main contenders.

With a six man break up the road including Lotto’s Adam Hansen the peloton were happy to let locally sponsored Vini Fantini do the work at the front. With one rider in contention for the GC and a local rider in Danilo Di Luca early expectations where for Vini Fantini to try for the stage win. For Maglia Rosa Luca Paolini this was a virtual last stage of the race as he fully expected to lose the lead after the time trial. Planning to ride the stage “..like a one day race” Paolini entertained hopes of retaining the leaders jersey for one more day.

As the break away began to ride into the showery weather there were more and more riders sliding off on a combination of hairpin descent and greasy road surfaces. The climbs were having an impact too with the break fragmenting and the peloton shelling riders out the back with regularity. With 20km left Adam Hansen, one of handful of riders to have ridden all three grand tours in a single year was alone after his last breakaway companion crashed. Riders were attempting to escape the peloton with varying degrees of success as the lead group became strung out on the climb.

With around a 4km descent after the final climb it was no surprise to see Vicenzo Nibali attempt to get away from his rivals. The favourites had got up the last climb with varying levels of support as team members had fallen away after doing their turn. Sky had looked less organised than normal, seldom running at the front and Uran falling off after touching Wiggins wheel at one point. Watching Hansen on the same roads minutes earlier it was clear that the descent was sketchy. First, Nibali slid off on a bend but he was back on his bike within seconds. Wiggins someway back negotiated this corner without difficulty, but came to grief on a hairpin further down. Getting back on slowly, he was all alone by the time he reached the bottom of the hill such was his speed in comparison to the other riders. As the road levelled out Wiggins began to push the pedals again and rediscovered his teammates who prepared to pull him to the finish.

While all of this was happening Adam Hansen was crossing the line for a fantastic solo win. In the break for nearly 150km and on his own for the last 20km for VCSE this was the win of the first week. Chapeau! The chasing group came in over a minute down but included Evans, Hesjedal and Nibali. It also included the new Maglia; Benet Intxausti of Movistar who had been ‘sitting’ unobtrusively in 3rd place @ 26 seconds since stage 4. Nibali moved into second with Hesjedal third. Evans cemented his place in the top 10 and Robert Gesink moved into the top 10 from 12th.

And Wiggins? 23rd place @1.32. The plan must have been to not lose any time on his rivals today so that he could press home his advantage over them in the time trial on Saturday. Instead there is the real possibility that any time gained will be needed just to get back on terms with Nibali. Added to the 17 seconds ‘lost’ on stage 4 it’s fair to say it hasn’t been a great week for Sky, with the result in the TTT on Ischia squandered through mostly bad luck, but potentially some tactical errors too. Wiggins has often found himself alone after a problem and the team have appeared to be slow to react. At least Wiggins will know that, barring a mechanical, what happens in stage 8 is down to him. In the time trial you’re racing against yourself as much as the other riders on the road and it’s not known as the ‘race of truth’ for nothing.

VCSE will have more updates after the weekends stages with a rest day coming up on Monday. Check out our YouTube channel for a dedicated playlist with all of the action from week 1.

Lucy Garner wins Stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming

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Argos Shimano had more than one thing to celebrate this week with Britain’s double world champion Lucy Garner winning stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming in China. Still only 18, Lucy out sprinted Emma Johansson and Shelley Olds to take the win.

The photo (from Argos Shimano) really captures Lucy’s elation at her victory; seeing a rider without their sunglasses in this case really helps to communicate the emotion and excitement she was feeling. Speaking afterwards Garner said; “I’m so happy I took the win today”

Yet another women’s world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle Honda took the second stage in bad weather with the final stage to be run in criterium format.

In the Pink – VCSE’s Racing Digest #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Days of Dunkirk

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

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

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

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

Giro a distraction for Wiggo?

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

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

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

Cavendish photo – http://www.tdwsport.com