And the Oscar goes to.. VCSE’s Racing Digest #31

Tour or California 2014 

Just as he said he would Bradley Wiggins won the Tour of California yesterday. Although his lead had been seconds rather than minutes a Wiggins victory hadn’t really looked in doubt after he took a convincing TT win on stage two. The expected challenger for the stage BMC’s Taylor Phinney had finished a disappointing (for him if not the race) 52 seconds down and two places down on the Team Sky rider. Second place on the day had gone to Garmin’s Rohan Dennis and it was the Australian who was expected to provide the competition for Wiggins for the GC. There’s a changing of the guard at Garmin now as some of the team’s aging roster head into retirement and new younger riders come to the fore. Dennis had gone out fairly early on the stage and set a time, but Wiggins destroyed the field and was the only rider to go sub 24 mins over the 20.1km course.

AToC 2014 winner - Bradley Wiggins
AToC 2014 winner – Bradley Wiggins

If Wiggins looked impressive over a short TT stage it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There was a similar outcome in the last TT stage in a week long stage race he targeted; last years Tour of Britain. Confirmation of just how strong Wiggins was riding came 24 hours later as the race headed to Mount Diablo in a repeat of one of the 2013 editions summit finishes. For everyone that was saying how lean Wiggins was looking in pursuit of the GC (he reputedly lost five kilos between finishing Paris Roubaix and starting the race) there would be someone else, including pointedly BMC DS Max Sciandri, saying that Sky would struggle to support Wiggins on the climbs. On the climb of Mount Diablo Wiggins showed that he wasn’t going to need supporters, he would make the selection himself. For much of the climb on a gradient that suited him Wiggins rode off the front at high tempo shelling riders easily. Only in the final few hundred metres did he begin to lose out as riders, notably Dennis, took up the pace. Dennis took seconds out of the lead, but crucially Wiggins still held it and once the euphoria of the stage win for Dennis died down it was hard to see how Wiggins could be toppled.

Dennis, the closest of his rivals, and the others could attack the lead on stage 6 to Mountain High but if anything Wiggins was stronger at the end as he managed to gap the Garmin rider and add another couple of seconds to his advantage. With two stages left, both of which were likely to end in a bunch sprint Wiggins looked safe and indeed that proved to be the case. He won the Tour of California by less than a minute, but his margin of superiority was far greater than the time gap showed.

So, mission accomplished then. Naturally, post race questions wondered if the win would have implications for Wiggins’ plans come July. The question was inevitable, even if it was just viewed as a US interviewer aggrandising their race. The so called ‘fourth grand tour’. Wiggins answered with a straight bat; if he was going to do the Tour it would be in support of Froome. The significant part of his answer was the ‘if’. Let’s indulge in fantasy for a second and state that Wiggins looks like the rider who one the Tour in 2012 and based on that why not let him lead Sky in the Tour. From a marketing perspective this would make total sense as Wiggins is far more popular than Froome with the wider (non-cycling) audience. Only Wiggins has the reach that could push the World Cup off the back pages.

However, Team Sky management have a strategy that is centred on Froome and everything else has to take second place to that. If Froome stamps his feet and says he doesn’t want Wiggins at the Tour then Wiggins will not be selected. Shrewder heads, like erstwhile Sky insider Shane Sutton have already indictated that could be the case even though it would seem inexplicable to many. An understanding of the thinking behind a decision like this is required. Based on performances so far this year Wiggins is arguably the stronger rider of the two. But, but Sky made their choice last year. Both riders need careful handling, but Froome has the kind of single mindedness  that Wiggins can’t maintain, particularly in a team which, even if it was once, is no longer centred on him.

It will take a massive drop in form and or fitness by Froome for Sky to look again to Wiggins for the Tour as leader, even if he could be a favourite again. Everything that Sky have done so far indicates that they have bet the house on Froome to defend his title. Wiggins may yet be selected as a superdomestique for the Tour, but VCSE suspects that there will be a few more twists yet.

The Tour of California feels like there are races within the race as it always seems to manage to throw up an unusual result or two besides the GC battle and the sprint stages. This years edition was no different. In fact stages 4 and 5 provided two different outcomes that wouldn’t have been predicted ahead of the race. Stage 4 was a bit of a comedy of errors as the sprinters teams miscalculated the catch for the break and it was left to the third division US based teams to duke it out for the win. Taylor Phinney redeemed himself from the TT by soloing off the front on the final climb of stage 5 to take the win in Santa Barbara. Phinney’s only other stage win came in similar, if less relaxed, circumstances last year in Poland. He had the time to bow theatrically this time around and it’s no surprise that a win for a marquee US rider goes down very well at this race.

The leftovers were divided between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. Cavendish appearing at the race for the first time in Omega Pharma Quick Step colours bookended the race with a win in the first and then the final stages. Cannondale probably breathed a huge sigh of relief that Sagan was able to take at least one stage. As good as he is, in an out and out sprint with Cavendish it’s really no contest. Cavendish’s first win has been replayed more than normal following the release of video from the on bike camera of runner up John Degenkolb. The UCI have suggested that cameras could be allowed in some races and based on the footage below it should be adopted as quickly as possible, albeit on a similar delay to the radio clips used on F1 coverage.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – week one stages 4 through 9 

One word to sum up the Giro so far; attritional. After losing Dan Martin before the first (TTT) stage had even finished, Marcel Kittel was gone as well and we weren’t even in Italy yet. The first stage on Italian soil in the far south of the country and finishing in the port city of Bari good weather might have been expected. Instead with the race visiting the area for the first time in thirty years we had rain, the difference being that this was as unusual in Bari as it was common in Ireland. Cue a pretty much neutralised stage that was eventually taken by FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni after the Giant team, trying to win in the absence of team leader Kittel, suffered a mechanical.

With Kittel gone it’s almost worth Bouhanni staying on at the race as it’s hard to see who will offer much opposition in the sprints. Bouhanni, to use a football analogy is a Europa league rider with ambitions to join the Champions league with Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel. Now that the Giant rider has abandoned he’s facing the equivalent of the lower divisions, although it’s strange that Elia Viviani hasn’t challenged more.

That story is a bit part as far as week one of the Giro is concerned. The big story has been the decimation of the field; a combination of bad weather and accidents (caused by the bad weather) robbing the race of contenders and / or key support riders. Biggest victims of misfortune are Katusha who have lost Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampolo Caruso and Angel Vicioso. It emerged that Rodriguez had started the race with tow broken ribs, sustained during Ardennes week. Added to that a broken finger during stage 7 to Monte Cassino and J Rod was out. If that was bad news and the accident that caused Caruso to abandon looked worse during prolonged camera shots in the aftermath of the crash what happened to Vicioso is truly tragic. He has been forced to retire, not just from the race but from the sport after suffering a triple fracture of his femur on the same stage.

Orica’s Michael Matthews won the stage in the Maglia Rosa having held the lead since the race left Ireland the previous weekend. Matthews had fancied his chances the previous day, but had managed to avoid the carnage on stage 7 and get away with a select group for the climb to Cassino. The key beneficiary as far as the GC was concerned was Cadel Evans. There was some mutterings that Evans shouldn’t have pressed the advantage with so many riders effected by the crash, but wiser heads dismissed it as a racing incident. It wasn’t as if Matthews teammates weren’t impacted either; Orica lost two riders on the stage due to the crash.

Evans takes a lead of around a minute into week two. At this point in the race it’s probably not enough of a lead, particularly with the final weeks climbs to come. Evans at least has a strong rider in support inside the top 10 and this could pay dividends if the likes of Rigoberto Uran or, more likely, Nairo Quintana decides to attack. Quintana has the most time to make up, 1.45 back on Evans and if the places were reversed you would suspect that the Movistar rider would feel more comfortable defending that lead than the Australian who will suffer on the steeper climbs to come. Uran will probably fulfil a watching brief for now, although a similar attack to the one that brought his stage win in last years race could really shake up the GC. Like Evans, Uran has some strong domestiques who he can use to cover attacks if they come.

For home fans the top ten has three Italians who might well feature on the podium if not the top step. Of the three the one with the most to celebrate on todays rest day is Lampre’s Diego Ulissi who has already taken two stage wins. He’s a versatile rider and both of his wins have come from late surges in the last few hundred metres. He’s unlikely to be given the chance to attack for a breakaway win, but if he can hang with the best climbers in the next couple of weeks he might nick another win or two, even if the top prize is likely to elude him. Fabio Aru has inherited the Astana team leadership now that Michele Scarponi has lost time following the week one carnage. He’s least likely of the three in VCSE’s view. Which leaves AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. Tipped in the VCSE Giro preview, Pozzovivo looked strong is yesterdays stage and put time into Evans to move within a minute and a half of the lead. What he lacks however is a really strong set of domestiques to back him and this could be the difference between a podium finish or just a stage win or two this year. Like Aru, Rafal Majka has ‘benefited’ from the demise of his team leader at Tinkoff Saxo Nico Roche. Majka currently sits third and could build on a strong performance in last years race.

The week ahead has a 42km TT and two mountain stages over the weekend. With another (uphill) TT and three more mountain stages to come it’s unlikely that this week will see the final selection as far as GC is concerned but any pretenders will be eliminated by the time the race reaches Montecampione on Sunday afternoon.

Giro 2014 – The Agony and the Ecstasy

Stage 1 – Belfast to Belfast TTT

 If you had the choice to ride for a team in the pro peloton who would it be? The obvious cliché for a Brit would be the dark clad horde Team Sky arriving at each race behind the zero visibility tinted windows of the Death Star. Any why not? For your correspondent however the teams that hold the greatest appeal in this hypothesis aren’t necessarily the  ones representing a home country or even the most winningest. It’s actually the teams that seem to genuinely embody that word ‘team’. The ones that represent the ‘one for all and all for one’ attitude. The outfit that exhibits this characteristic most of all is Orica Green Edge who seem to manage to win while looking as if they’re actually having fun.

Out of the Giro - Dan Martin
Out of the Giro – Dan Martin

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, Orica announced that they wanted to do things a bit differently when the released their lip synced version of ‘Call Me Maybe’ at the end of the 2012 Vuelta. In a predominantly Australian team the ‘mateship’ between the riders and staff is clear, but it isn’t just limited to the Aussie riders on the team as shown in yesterdays TTT that opened the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Svein Tuft, one of three non Australian’s in Orica’s Giro line up, was (literally) gifted the Maglia Rosa on his 37th birthday by the team. In the absence of Omega Pharma Quick Step’s TTT A team (that only tends to appear at the world’s) Orica are one of, if not, the best TTT outfits out there and would have fancied themselves as contenders if not outright favourites to take the first stage around 23km of Belfast city centre. As the second team off the start ramp Orica would have a long wait to see if their time was going to be the best, but whatever the outcome Tuft was going to get his present as the team shuffled to ensure that he would be the first over the line. If Orica did end up with the quickest time Tuft would be in pink for his big day.

In a possible glimpse of what we can expect for July’s Tour Grand Depart in Yorkshire the opening stage of this years Giro threw up the kind of weather that is synonymous with Britain; rain. OK, so it wasn’t exactly torrential but it looked as if someone at the city council had misunderstood what the race organisers mean when they ask for the road surface to be tidied up for a cycle race. Every bit of the course looked as if it had been given a fresh coat of paint with the riders having to negotiate bright white road stripes and bus lane signage throughout.

It wasn’t a bit of paint that did for Dan Martin. The Garmin rider’s high profile status thanks to his registration with the Irish cycling federation and team leader status for the race appears to have cursed him. As he rode up the chain gang in fifth wheel Martin appeared to be unsettled by a raised manhole cover and as he hit a second almost immediately after he was down. The three riders behind were skittled over by his stricken Cervelo and Martin was left in the wake of the accident clutching his shoulder. It soon became clear that Martin wasn’t going anywhere but the local A&E, his Giro over before he had even ridden the first stage.

Martin’s exit made Joaquim Rodriguez’s time loss look insignificant in comparison, Katusha the next biggest losers out of the GC contenders. Giant underperformed to the extent that Marcel Kittel is unlikely to get a spell in the leaders jersey in Ireland at least. With heavy rain and thunderstorms forecast for today’s stage around the Antrim coast and back to Belfast it’s entirely possible that we could lose a few more riders thanks to typical early grand tour jitters and wet and crowded roads.

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

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’

“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                                                                                                                             

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

You remember Zdenek Stybar don’t you? No? He’s the eight year professional with Omega Pharma Quick Step last seen being nerfed out of the race at Paris Roubiax. After an injury blighted season the cyclo-crosser come road racer resurfaced at last weeks Eneco Tour and not only won two stages but the overall as well. It could well have been three stage wins out of the seven on offer, but the Czech rider just missed out to Team Sky’s David Lopez who won stage 6 on the legendary La Redoute climb. Describing his win as “..dream come true” after knee surgery that forced him to miss this years Tour de France Stybar triumphed across a parcours that featured many of the ascents that feature in the Belgian spring classics.

Ian Stannard
Ian Stannard (Photo credit: Brendan A Ryan)

Winning the final stage was the icing on the cake but the party was almost spoiled by another member of the Sky squad bidding for a stage win. Ian Stannard may be developing a bit of a reputation as a bridesmaid after hard graft results in someone else taking the glory, but ‘Yogi’ has enhanced his reputation again here following his dogged pursuit of the win at this years Milan San Remo and a strong support role at the Tour. Stannard is without doubt an ‘engine’ which may not be to his advantage in the cat and mouse game that is the final kilometre of a stage. However, he does look like a rider that can do a job for Sky on this type of terrain. He’s likely to have protected status for the classics next season, but Sky’s team leader may yet have to show his face. INRNG suggests that Sylvain Chavanel will be riding for a Pinarello shod team next season. It’s hard to imagine Movistar prioritising the classics and Sky need a ‘face’ who’s a proven winner in the Juan Antonia Flecha mould (ah.. hold on a sec.. should say potential winner). With Sky rumoured to have courted Fabian Cancellara before he re-signed with Trek, the need for a marquee classics signing increased and Chavanel fits the bill.

Unfortunately for Sky, the UK is more likely to inspire stage race and grand tour wannabes as the country continues to ride on the wave of interest sparked by multiple Tour de France wins. In the short term they may have to rely on brought in talent from overseas to realise their goal of a classics win.

The had been talk of that student of road racing history and folklore Sir Bradley Wiggins bulking back up for a tilt at Paris Roubaix. Wiggins followed up his low key return to racing in the Tour of Poland with a similarly disinterested appearance at Eneco. In Poland intentions were clear with Wiggins surrendering his leaders position to Sergio Henao. A week or so later in the low countries and with a strong team around him, the sight of Wiggins going out the back on stage one was a pretty strong indicator that he wasn’t focused on the GC. The often mis-firing Sky PR machine was wheeled out with the big reveal that he would be going for victory in the TT, further preparation for the world championships in September.

The TT stage over a not quite prologue like 13 or so kilometres was technical, not the length or route that Wiggins would chosen, but expectations would have been high for a win. A sense that the wheels were coming off at least figuratively became apparent when Radioshack’s Jesse Sergent crossed the line 15 seconds faster. Ironic if Chavanel is Sky bound as it was the French TT winner who ended up taking the stage.

Taking everything into account about the distance and technical nature of the course this is more of a bump in the road as opposed to the kind of setback that Wiggins endured in the Giro. There’s a sense that he is still something of a fragile character after Italy, so the focus on his strongest discipline is understandable. While Chris Froome was arguably the stronger on the climbs during Wiggin’s Tour win in 2012, Froome is yet to beat him against the clock. If anything Wiggins seems to become more reconciled to his position in the team with interviews over the last few weeks describing how he wouldn’t expect to lead a GC assault if Froome was in the same squad and now indicating a return to track cycling for the 2016 Olympics.

The weeks racing was interesting also for the ability of individual riders to upset the bunch sprint. This was played out to greatest effect in stage 1 with a sprinter actually causing the break. Whether by accident of design Omega Pharma destined Belkin rider Mark Renshaw pulled off an enjoyable (for this viewer anyway) upset that seemed to surprise most of the peloton and maybe even some of his teammates. There’s a link to Renshaw’s power data for the stage on our Facebook site.

Wiggins isn’t the only rider having a year to forget. Current world road race champion Philippe Gilbert had another week to forget at Eneco and is without a win this year. If there is a ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ there aren’t many better ways to illustrate it. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta with a similar uphill finish to his favourite Fleche Wallone. How he (and BMC) will be hoping for a similar result for this years race.

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

After the hype ahead of this years Giro and the 100th Tour the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana is facing an uphill struggle for attention every bit as steep as the Alto de L’Angliru. Last years edition benefited from Alberto Contador’s return to grand tour racing. Not surprisingly, Spanish riders are always up for the home races and last year was no exception with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez joining Contador in the GC battle. Hard as it is to imagine after his dominant form this year that the 2012 Vuelta was the first race for Chris Froome as an official team leader.

Froome, fatigued from his efforts supporting Bradley Wiggins in the Tour, faded as the Vuelta’s climbs became steeper and eventually finished far from disgraced in 4th. The early leader was Rodriguez, but he was to experience disappointment again as with his runner up spot in the Giro earlier the same year. Rodriguez was expected to lose his lead to Froome or Contatdor during the TT, but he survived until Contador attacked on a relatively innocuous looking stage 17 and rode away for the stage win. Rodriguez left exposed on the stage took another kick as a resurgent Valverde overhauled his 2nd place. Contador, whatever anyone might think of his provenance looked imperious and anyone watching would have predicted that 2013’s strongest rider was likely to be the recently returned Spaniard.

The race was notable for the emergence of John Degenkolb, who dominated the sprint stages for Argos Shimano, taking five altogether.  VCSE’s stage of the race was the solo win by local pro-conti Caja Rural rider Antonio Piedra at the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.

So, what of this years version? Just as the Tour, last years winner is missing. Contador pulled out from the race before the Tour had even finished and Saxo Bank will be led by Contador’s ‘shadow’ at the Tour Roman Kreuzinger. Froome has massively transcended his situation from last year, where team leadership at the Vuelta was his reward for helping Wiggins at the Tour. Based on that train of thought might we have expected Richie Porte to lead Sky in Spain? No, Froome and Porte are in the US for the Pro Challenge. Sky as they are minded to do will probably select their Spanish riders like Lopez and Xandio in support and lead with the Columbian’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. Team leader will probably be Henao. Uran’s departure to Omega Pharma will be a mark against the rider who if not physically stronger, seems to have the psychological edge over his compatriot.

Although they have had a month to recover it remains to be seen if Rodriguez or Valverde can summon up the reserves to take them two or one place further respectively this time around. Valverde’s Tour fell apart after the wind effected stage from Tours in week two. Shorn of team leaders responsibilities he was able to animate the race in the final week, peaking similarly to the Vuelta last year. For all of the success Valverde’s Movistar team have achieved with several stage wins in this years Giro and Tour, it’s the Vuelta that is the biggest prize for a Spanish sponsored and based team. The Columbian connection continues with AG2R bringing Carlos Betancur. Betancur’s performances in the Giro have been overshadowed by Quintana’s Tour successes, but the AG2R man should come into the race with fresher legs. Rodriguez looked ecstatic with third place in the Tour but surely has ambitions beyond a podium place at every grand tour.

Dan Martin will lead Garmin and has said that he is going for GC, but may be better placed for stage wins, the aim of Orica Green Edge. With extinction looming riders from Euskatel will be looking to put in some strong performances in their home race to reinforce their pitch for a new berth next season. It’s disappointing that so many riders have publicly declared that they are using the Vuelta for training but this should at least allow for allow for some open racing. There’s some interest in the wild cards too with Net App Endura securing an invitation to this years race to provide some Anglo German interest.

So, we have mentioned riders returning to major action since the Giro like Betancur and Uran, but what of the Giro winner. Vincenzo Nibali, the only rider to have beaten Chris Froome in head to head competition this year has performed in almost as low a key as Wiggins since his Giro win. Knowing the Italian was missing the Tour this year to focus on the Giro it was reasonable to think that he would tilt at a Giro Veulta double. Since then Nibali has announced his late season focus is on the world championships being held in Florence in September. A Nibali in form, the same form as he showed in the Giro and earlier in the season, would be an easy prediction for the overall. Nibali is a pretty straight shooter so if he says he isn’t going for GC it will be pretty clear if it’s a smoke screen when the race starts going uphill.

VCSE’s GC Prediction – 1. Valverde 2. Rodriguez 3. Betancur (unless Nibali decides to ride and then all bets are off!)

For the second year ITV4 will be showing an hour long highlights show. Live coverage will be on Eurosport (this obviously applies for UK viewers).

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

Stage 8 (Saturday 31st August) Jerez de la Frontera to Estapona – Actually a cat 1 summit finish with the race visiting the far south of the country.

Stage 14 (Saturday 7th September) Baga to Andorra – Features the highest climb of the race, the 2380m Port de Envalira

Stage 15 (Sunday 8th September) Andorra to Peyragudes – The longest stage of the race crossing into France and over the Col de Peyresourde and 3 more 1st Cat climbs.

Stage 20 (Saturday 15th September) Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru – The traditional penultimate stage with the Hors Category summit finish.

And here’s the GCN view

Darkness into light – VCSE’s Racing Digest #14

Tour de France 2013 wrap up

It was always unlikely that Chris Froome would make any enforced errors on the penultimate stage of this years Tour. Consciously or otherwise he attempted to soothe those sections of the media and those fans at the roadside who were feeling his performances so far had an extraterrestrial air of superiority. For their final day in the Alps the peloton faced a relatively short 120 kilometre stage that looped out and back to Annecy, finishing on the climb of Semnoz above the town with its average gradient of nearly 9% over 11km.

Chris Froome
Mr Clean – Chris Froome (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It became clear fairly quickly that Froome wasn’t going to be challenged by Alberto Contador, the Saxo team tactics appeared that they were content for Sky to ride tempo, perhaps hoping to secure Contador’s podium by this route.  When it came to the crunch, or in this case the final climb of the day the Saxo strategy unravelled as Contador was unable to keep pace with Froome, Nairo Qunitana and late arrival to the GC party Joaquim Rodriguez.

If Froome had star billing before, during and inevitably after this years Tour, then Nairo Quintana would have appeared just below the races leading actor. As fortunes ebbed and flowed for the riders from Movistar, Quintana found himself elevated to leadership status after Alejandro Valverde’s bid for the GC was derailed between Tours and Saint Amand Montrond in week two. Always the rider most likely to get a reaction from Froome on the climbs, if not actually put him under sustained pressure, Quintana took his opportunity to Annecy to further enhance his reputation. By the end of the stage not only was Quintana wearing the young riders jersey, he had annexed the King of the Mountains and moved up to second place overall.

If you’re going to show a bit of mortality then the last climb of the last stage is possibly the best place to do it  if you’re Chris Froome. He had employed his cartoonish high cadence counter attack already but with Contador losing touch when Quintana and Rodriguez dug again, Froome almost appeared to shrug his shoulders, the metaphor “OK, you can have this one”. If this was a gift to some, it was an unwitting kick in the balls for Contador who found himself falling off the podium altogether. The sense was that Rodriguez’s ambition was a podium place after his relative anonymity in the first two weeks. There was a token amount of good natured sparring between him and Quintana before the Columbian distanced him and we were treated to an actual show of emotion as Quintana crossed the line.

The GC was sorted. Froome winning was no surprise to anyone really. The only debate, the methods employed or not employed by rider and team. With the benefit of two weeks hindsight the consensus now seems that the amount of column inches dedicated to the margin and method of Froome’s victory was inevitable given the fact that this was the first Tour since Lance confessed. Froome has coped with the attention pretty well it seems. It certainly didn’t affect his performance. Whatever your view about Chris Froome riding clean (or not) the facts are that his win in this years Tour was a much harder fought victory than Bradley Wiggins in 2012. The level of GC competition, say Nibabli in 2012 verses Contador in 2013 is less significant than the fact that Sky were simply unable to dominate the pace as the had before. The race was won by Froome not on the second TT or Mont Ventoux, but when he rode alone and unsupported through the Pyrenees on stage 9.

Quintana is already being touted as a future grand tour winner. He will develop tactically over the next few years but in a regular time trial stage he will lose heaps of time to a rider like Froome. His testing needs to improve dramatically for him to rival the Sky rider, at least in the short term. Where Quintana can be most effective is probably somewhere like the Vuelta where the climbs are steeper and there is less emphasis on riding purely against the clock. Alberto Contador’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of stage 20 was to announce that he wouldn’t defend his Vuelta title from last year. Coming up against Vincenzo Nibali refreshed from the Giro and probably the only rider who can rival Froome at present doesn’t appear to be particularly enticing but by the following day Saxo Bank were already rowing backwards from the statements of the day before. No doubt we will find out more next month. Rodriguez now has a podium in each of the grand tours in the last two years, which seems like achievement enough for him.

Garmin’s Andrew Talansky rode well in the final week to become the young rider surrogate for Quintana and sneak into the top 10 on GC. Garmin managed to get someone into the mix in each week with Dan Martin’s win in the Pyrenees the obvious highlight. In what is rumoured be his last Tour David Millar was a second out of the race lead in week one and his forlorn attempt to win stage 21 with a breakaway on the Champs Elysee was incredible and desperate in equal measure.

Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang’s 7th place was a bit of a poke in the eye for his critics that doubted he would figure in the race, all the more since he lost four teammates over three weeks. Alejandro Valverde clawed back time in the Alps for a top 10 place that VCSE suspects he will be happy with, if not achieved as he expected to. With new sponsor joining them for the Tour Blanco became Belkin and until the race entered the last week had two riders in contention. Bauke Mollema wasn’t unheralded as team leader as he brought some good form into the race and the despite slipping from 2nd at one point, 6th is a decent outcome for the Dutch team. The Richie Porte to Alberto Contador’s Chris Froome was Roman Kreuziger. Saxo had assembled a strong team for the Tour and the Czech rider cemented his Amstel Gold win with 5th place.

And so to Paris..

While the GC reckoning had taken place the previous day the peloton still had to cross the line in Paris to finish the race. The night stage on the Champs Elysee was held in twilight rather than full darkness but it provided a hint that maybe there was a new era emerging. Mark Cavendish was denied a fifth win in what Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby referred to as “The unofficial sprinters world championship” by Marcel Kittel. From the vantage point of the VCSE sofa it looked as if the Omega Pharma sprint train had decoupled somewhere between the Rue de Rivoli and the finish straight. We suspected that Cavendish would be overheard tearing his team and his bike a new one afterwards. Instead, he seemed almost philosophical about the defeat where he was even denied the runners up spot by Andre Greipel. His lead out had “… done exactly what I asked” and there was a suggestion of not having enough power. Did the late puncture have an effect? The cobblestone that kicked his rear wheel skywards metres from the line probably denied him second place. Kittel was just the much stronger rider on the day. There’s talk of the Tour visiting Germany as well as Yorkshire next year. If it does then the resurgence of German cycling embodied by riders like Kittel and Greipel will have played a huge part.

The green points jersey competition was already long decided by this time. Peter Sagan was disappointed with a solitary stage win, but it was his consistency that won the prize this year. If anything his performance mirrored that of his classics season where he was always there or thereabouts and his only win came in the semi classic Ghent Wevelghem. The suggestion that the points system now favours riders like Sagan over pure sprinters like Cavendish and should be changed is wrong. Sagan is a winner in the style of a Thor Hushovd or a Sean Kelly. Surely it makes sense to continue to favour the best all-rounder and leave the sprinters their moment in the sun (or twilight) in Paris.

The light show projected on the Arc de Triomphe was pretty spectacular stuff, although the twinkling lights of the Eiffell Tower was just something they always do apparently. Perhaps the podium show lacked some of the shock and awe we had expected for the 100th Tour, but in comparison to the normal prize giving on the flatbed of an articulated lorry presided over by Bernard Hinault it had something. Chris Froome was as we had come to recognise over the previous weeks, blinking in the spotlights and perhaps even still slightly disbelieving in what he had done. He wants us to believe though, in him and in the jersey. VCSE suspects that some of our heroes will break our hearts in the future, but Chris Froome is unlikely to be among them.

In other news.. racing continues

A pleasing report from Belgium where Tom Boonen, looking rather anonymous now that he has lost his national title claimed a stage win in the Tour de Wallonie. Some much needed good news for BMC too after Greg Van Avermaet snatched the GC along with a couple of stage wins. The team had a frankly awful Tour with Cadel Evans fading and Tejay Van Garderen summing up his race by losing on Alpe d’Huez.

We can look forward to Spain’s one day classic the.. er Clasica San Sebastian today and the start of the Tour of Poland. The notable entrant in the stage race, which actually begins in Italy is Bradley Wiggins. Described by Dave Brailsford this week as “motivated” it will be interesting to see if we see more of the Bradley Wiggins of 2013 so far or flashes of the Wiggo of 2012. A week or so should tell us what we need to know..

Rather like Alejandro Valverde we got a good percentage of our Tour predictions right. No praise for picking Froome as a winner, but Contador and Rodriguez in the top 5 and Quintana as KOM we will take. Let’s just keep Cavendish in green and Cadel in the top 5 between ourselves… 

The team from down under takes over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #11

English: Peter Sagan in green won the sprint a...
Peter Sagan – can he stay in green? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The riders of the 2013 Tour de France, having completed seven stages already would probably disagree, but this years race starts in earnest tomorrow as the Tour enters the Pyrenees for two days of climbing. Saturday sees the first summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines and will be followed by four first category climbs on Sunday. By Monday and the first rest day we will have our initial indications of who will end up in the Maillot Jaune in two weeks on the streets of Paris. Week one has pretty much centred on the points classification battle with all of the key figures, with the exception of Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, winning a stage ahead of Friday’s rolling stage to Albi.

Like many great plans the decision to forgo a prologue and open the 100th Tour with a sprint stage on the races first visit to Corsica didn’t quite pan out as expected. Tour Director Christian Prudhomme had made it pretty obvious that he favoured Mark Cavendish to take the first stage and with it the chance to wear yellow for the first time in his career. Argos Shimano with their sprint double team of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb ignored the script and it was Kittel who took the win and the honour of wearing the leaders jersey for stage 2. It later emerged that Cavendish had been suffering from a virus. He seemed philosophical about missing out on yellow, but such is the stature of the new British champion it’s entirely possible that parcours could be ‘tailored’  to allow him another crack at yellow in future Tours.

With the next two stages in Corsica taking in some significant climbs Kittel was never likely to retain the yellow jersey, such is his inability to climb much more than a gentle slope. Either stage offered the chance of a bunch sprint, but almost equally there were opportunities for a breakaway and it was once such move that prevailed by a single second at the line in stage 2. Jan Bakelants of Radioshack all but guaranteed his future employment with the new Trek team that will emerge from the Radioshack ashes in 2014 with the win that also catapulted him into the overall lead. One of riders a second back on Sunday was Sagan and he was pipped again on stage 3 by a rider with form at ‘stealing’ last minute (read: last second) victories; Orica Green Edge’s Simon Gerrans. The Australian rider had controversially snatched the win at Milan San Remo in 2012 by sneaking around Fabian Cancellara’s wheel at the line. His timing was spot on again and Sagan had to console himself with his haul of green jersey points.

The Tour was back on the mainland for Tuesday’s Team Time Trial in Nice. It’s fair to say that most eyes weren’t on Orica Green Edge ahead of the stage. Garmin, who had won the TTT when it last featured had David Millar one second from yellow and were shackled with the favourite’s label by the lazier commentators. Crucially Garmin have a different make up this year and look more likely to take stage wins, rather than feature high on the GC. It’s unlikely that the team would have expected Millar to be the leader in any case and the circumstances they found themselves in for the test were probably a happy coincidence rather than a grand plan. Omega Pharma, with Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel in the squad held the lead for considerable time on the day, with Sky the strongest of the GC teams. Orica were late off the ramp, but rode strongly to not only win the stage, but put Gerrans into yellow following his stage win the previous day.

Mark Cavendish’s (legal) pharmaceuticals had worked their magic by stage 5, although the difference was mostly his Omega Pharma sprint train who dominated the last few kilometres into Marseilles. All of the early season niggles about the lead out have now disappeared and with a further sprint stage due on Thursday in Montpellier a consecutive win could have been on the cards. Week one of the Tour de France will rarely follow such a conventional script and a late fall left Cavendish somewhat frayed of jersey and displaying a few cuts and bruises. He got himself back to the front for the bunch sprint, but it was Lotto Belisol who were firing on all cylinders after their previous day misfire. Andre Greipel took a relatively easy win. Gerran’s surrendered the yellow jersey, but Orica were able to celebrate all the same as it was passed to his team mate; Daryl Impey.

Cannondale ended the first week with a plan; deliver a stage win for Peter Sagan. Although the team in green had their man (comfortably) in the green jersey at the start of the day, at this point last year Sagan already had three wins to his credit. The team went full gas from the start, riding on the front for more than 100 kilometres. Sagan’s points classification rivals were gapped on the first serious climb of the day and with 40 km’s to go Cavendish, Greipel and co’ gave up on the chase back to the peloton. The only fly in the ointment was surprise of the week Bakelants who stayed away with a couple of others until the stage reached the outskirts of Albi. The fact that Cannodale, a man down since Ted King’s enforced withdrawl after the TTT, could still find riders to lead Sagan out summed up just how much his teammates buried themselves today. It would have been heartbreaking if Sagan had been pipped again, but as the first week came to an end he prevailed. It leaves him with an almost 100 point advantage of Greipel in the race to the green jersey, with Cavendish in third. There was always a possibility that the green jersey could get wrapped up early in the Tour and we could see Cavendish ceding the points contest and ‘putting it all on black’ for the final stage in Paris in two weeks.

Sky have three riders in the top 10 on GC as the race enters the Pyrenees tomorrow. Edvald Boasson Hagen has a slight advantage over Chris Froome and Richie Porte based on some well freelanced sprint efforts this week but he and the team will know that its Sky’s team leader who is expected to enjoy the limelight tomorrow. The way the week has panned out has been a bit of dream come true for Sky. The team, with one exception, have managed to avoid injury and have been able to quietly go about their business while teams like Radioshack and Orica have enjoyed their time in the sun. Froome’s GC rivals have been similarly unscathed and the question for the weekend is how the other teams will counter the Sky metronome on the climbs. In fairness to Sky, taking over the lead so soon last year was not part of their strategy, but this didn’t stop criticism of the tactic and claims that it led to a boring race (unless you were British). Their rivals have had twelve months to decide how to combat the Sky train and tomorrow will be the first look at what this counter insurgency entails. Froome will want to be in yellow by the time the race gets to the TT at Mont St Michel next week, where he would expect to consolidate any lead. It’s still too early to say who will launch a challenge, but lurking in the top ten is Garmin’s Dan Martin. If he’s not quite a rival for Froome over three weeks, he could upset the race with a stage win this weekend.

VCSE’s team of the week – Orica Green Edge

VCSE’s rider of the week – Jan Bakelants 

Another positive (or should that be negative?) for Vini Fantini

Mauro Santambrogio
Mauro Santambrogio (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It’s been announced this afternoon that Vini Fantini rider Mauro Santambrogio has failed a doping test for EPO. Unlike his erstwhile teammate Danilo Di Luca Santambrogio’s test was carried out in Italy. The findings were discovered at a Rome laboratory after the test was taken ahead of stage 1 of this years Giro d’Italia, held in Naples.

VCSE has picked up on the story this afternoon via social media. At present there hasn’t been any comment officially from Santambrogio’s no doubt soon to be ex employers Vini Fantini, but his DS at the Giro Luca Scinto has already hinted that it could spell the end of the team, stating; “It’s the end of our project”. It’s a blow to VCSE as well after we had backed the rider as one to watch following his performances in early season events like Tirreno Adriatico and his stage 14 win at the Giro last month.

The positive test raises many questions, chiefly would Santambrogio have achieved the same results if he had ridden clean? Although no longer with a world tour team, the move to Vini Fantini at the age of 28 provided a fantastic platform to lead a team and ride for general classification results in addition to stage wins. Assuming Santambrogio offers no defence to the positive test he will have, in effect, ended his career.

How so? If the noises from the peloton are to be believed there appears to be a shift towards lifetime bans for dopers. This was certainly the consensus when Di Luca’s positive test was reported. In practice it is unlikely to happen, if only because sanctions aren’t applied universally. Take the example of Garmin where David Millar is not only an ex doper, but also part owner of the team. In addition to Millar there are riders on Garmin like Christian Van de Velde and David Zabriskie who served bans in the off season after their part in the Lance Armstrong / USADA case. Garmin maintain a transparent anti doping stance and where formed as such. The riders on the team who have doped in the past have ultimately come forward and cooperated with the anti doping authorities. This is not the case with other teams, where although an anti doping stance is implied it is not always explicit how this is applied.

Team Sky’s zero tolerance anti doping policy is the other high profile example from the world tour. This has proved to be a blessing and a curse for Sky as it essentially relies on the preparedness of team members to be open about doping. Prior to the Lance Armstrong ‘reasoned decision’ Sky had unwittingly employed ex dopers who subsequently left the team when the Armstrong story broke. As far as VCSE is aware there aren’t any other world tour teams who maintain such a highly visible anti doping stance as Garmin and Sky. Garmin’s approach appears to have its merits in that riders who admit to having doped in the past can remain with the team, although the emphasis here is ex doper. Former professional rider turned DS Matt White was sacked by Garmin after recommending a doctor closely associated with doping to a rider on the team.

Sky’s zero tolerance policy seems simple enough, but it was easy for riders and staff to circumvent it by just not saying anything about their past. Where zero tolerance falls down for VCSE is that Sky have lost talent from the team (back room staff in particular) by not allowing the chance of rehabilitation. It has also led to questions being asked when someone leaves the team under ‘unusual’ circumstances.

Students of the cycling biography (Tyler Hamilton & David Millar being obvious examples) will know that teams historically employed some kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. The reality of this was probably that don’t ask and don’t tell was the grey, middle area between teams that openly employed a doping strategy (open within the confines of the team bus that is) and teams that left the riders to make their own arrangements, safe in the knowledge that a professional rider would always ‘prepare’ properly for a big race.

VCSE believes that road racing is pretty clean at present. The fact that riders are testing positive suggests that the anti doping controls that are in place are working and the teams are taking appropriate action if a rider tests positive. The problems begin when considering the wider impact of a positive test. Mauro Santambrogio looked like a rider on the verge of a great year, if not greatness having joined a new team. Tyler Hamilton talked about how he achieved some of his greatest results riding clean, but as a doper all of his results carry that taint. It’s the same for Santambrogio, who finds himself, quite legitimately under scrutiny for every placing this year, if not in previous years before that.

Play it again Cav – VCSE’s Racing Digest #9

Giro stages 13, 14 & 15 – Busseto to Cherasco, Cervere to Bardonecchia (Jafferau) & Cesana Torinese to Col du Galibier

To paraphrase Casablanca; at least we will always have Cav. The deliberations on the Team Sky Death Star after stage 12 were over and the news before stage 13 was that Bradley Wiggins was going home. Cue frantic emails to the nicer hotels on the remaining route as sports editors and TV news reporters from the British media cancelled their travel plans. The conclusion that could be reached if the mainstream UK media was your only source was that the Giro was going to be a Wiggins benefit, so at least we are no spared the need for them to find ways of squirreling a Wiggins ‘angle’ into every report. The ‘failure’ of Wiggins attempt to win the Giro raises some interesting questions for the way the sport is covered in the UK however.

An increase in coverage, even at a superficial level is no bad thing and the Giro ‘story’ has held it’s own against some pretty seismic events in other sports. National radio has covered the race in a way that would normally only be seen for the Tour. The decision by Sky to show a daily highlights package, having previously shown the Tour de Romandie hinted that the satellite broadcaster could start making inroads into the TV rights for road racing assuming a similar level of success for ‘their’ team. Wiggins departure will not stop the rights discussion although a contrast will no doubt be made between the ratings that a Wiggins / Sky win would have achieved in the UK as opposed to the likely Nibali victory next Sunday.

There are some parallels in other sports. Sky purchased the rights to domestic Test Cricket around the time of the England teams resurgence in 2005. Could Sky be betting on the desire of Cycling fans (and Team Sky fans in particular) to watch racing live and therefore be prepared to pay for the privilege? ITV, who picked up the rights for the Tour from Channel 4 will continue to show the race free to air until 2015 at the earliest. Whether or not British riders build on the successes of 2012 (a Froome victory in 2013 at the Tour?) will have a massive influence on how we follow the sport in the future.

Which brings us to Mark Cavendish. While Wiggins decline and subsequent fall was being pored over Cav was busy winning his 100th stage as well as becoming the leading stage winner on the Giro 2013. At the time of writing (the second rest day) Cavendish remains in the race, having got himself up and over some fearsome climbs in the process. He has also seen off some of his key challengers for the sprint stages with John Degenkolb (Argos) and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) both abandoning, Bouhanni the day after finishing second to Cavendish at Treviso.

Cavendish has railed against the lack of coverage he received in the past and it would feel somewhat disrespectful if the mainstream media turned away from the Giro and what he is achieving because of Wiggins departure. He remains points leader going into the final week and assuming he can get over a ‘bump’ at the end of the stage has an opportunity to increase his win tally ahead of the pan flat final stage on Sunday. The Giro doesn’t favour sprinters for its points classification and Cavendish is up against some strong opposition among the climbers and GC contenders. With only a fleeting opportunity to wear the Maglia Rosa after his win on stage 1 Cavendish should have the motivation to go for the Maglia Rosso, particularly after just missing out last year.

Vincenzo Nibali’s grip on the GC looks pretty unshakable at the moment. He was able to put more time into his rivals on the shortened stage 14 and takes a lead of over a minute into the final week. After contending with mostly wet conditions the move into the alps coincided with snowfall to add to the riders misery. Organisers RCS had cut part of the stage 14 route, the climb to Sestriere due to the conditions but this provided minor comfort to the riders who made it to the finish. The stage was won by VCSE favourite Mauro Santambrogio from Vini Fantini who managed to out drag Nibali to the line on the Jaffrau. Nibali had turned the screw on this one though, putting time into Cadel Evans and yet more into Robert Gesink ending his hopes for the race. Consolation then for the race leader, although it’s unlikely that he would want to win the overall without taking a stage win himself. The two mountain stages in the week ahead should provide an opportunity.

Of course last years victor Ryder Hesjedal famously took the win without taking a stage. Hesjedal’s chances this year were long gone when he abandoned to rather less fanfare than Wiggins ahead of stage 13. Other notable withdrawals; stage 4 winner Enrico Battaglin following an accident and a rider who had seemed out of sorts right from the start, Garmin’s David Millar.

The weather intervened again for stage 15. A regular feature on the Tour, RCS had inserted one of the more interesting examples of cross border grand tour route planning by including the Col du Galibier on Sundays stage. Nibali seemed content to leave his powder dry for this one and the GC contenders crossed the line in a group about a minute down on Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti. Movistar are having a pretty good race so far with Benat Intxausti in the top ten and a spell in pink to go with two stage wins.

For the final week the GC looks like Nibali’s to lose. Cadel Evans remains the surprise package and finishing second would be no disgrace for a rider many (including VCSE) had written off beforehand. VCSE suspects that the limit of Rigoberto Uran’s ambitions is a podium place, although his win on the first summit finish on stage 10 suggest he can take it to Nibali. Sky would no doubt like to wrest the victory from Astana, but Uran has already had to take on a mind shift of epic proportions in becoming team leader. Can he step up? VCSE thinks not (this time). Uran will also be looking over his shoulder at VCSE podium pick Santambrogio.

Tour of California 

Great to see Tejay Van Garderen take the overall in the TOC. Van Garderen who took the lead from Janier Acevedo on stage 5 won from Saxo Banks Mick Rogers a previous winner at the tour. Van Garderen had finished in a group including the sprinters who had expected to contest stage 5, six seconds down on living legend 41 years young Jens Voight. Voight, who had been discussing the finer points of attacking the previous day (see the video below) struck as the stage entered its final kilometres. This was Voigt’s 99th win and afterwards he joked about signing on “..for another year”. He was also pretty vocal this week about the lack of an equivalent women’s TOC suggesting that any plans to extend the duration of the men’s race should include a women’s event on the undercard.

The penultimate and queen stage to Mount Diablo saw Net App Endura’s Leopold Konig take the win. It’s a great result for Net App for have secured a wild card entry to the Vuelta later this year after missing out on a place at the Tour. Acevedo came in second, but Van Garderen was close behind only five seconds down.

The final stage ended in another sprint and almost another win for Net App with Daniel Schorn just beaten by Peter Sagan. Sagan extended his lead for stage wins at the race, but might reflect on some opportunities missed during the week. He will continue to improve as a rider but has looked a bit jaded at times here which makes for a potentially intriguing match up between him and Mark Cavendish at this years Tour. Cavendish has been able to deliver on the sprint stages the day after finishing a debilitating climbing stage, whereas Sagan perhaps trying to race everything has not left enough in the tank for the stages where he is a genuine contender. In terms of outright speed Cavendish still has the legs, while Sagan is perhaps more of a sprinter in the mould of Thor Hushovd.

Tejay Van Garderen will also have much to think about ahead of the Tour. Prior to the Giro a Van Garderen win in California would have given him leverage to be chosen as BMC’s leader for the Tour ahead of Cadel Evans. Evans’ return to form at the Giro created a headache for the Swiss backed US team before Van Garderen’s victory on the west coast. Now all eyes will be on Evans to see if he can maintain the form shown in the first two weeks and cement his claim for the leadership at the Tour.