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

Tour of Flanders 2017

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

Philippe Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pais Vasco 2017

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

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

Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

So we’re already a quarter way through the 2016 season and I’m feeling pretty conscious that I haven’t written a great deal about everything that’s taken place since Tirreno and Paris Nice a few weeks back. We’ve had the rivals for this years grand tours line up in the Volta a Catalunya, a couple of semi-classics in Belgium and the first of the monuments; Milan San Remo.  While there are stories to be told about all of these races everything has been overshadowed in the last few days by the death of two riders in separate events last weekend.

On Saturday Belgian rider Daan Myngheer suffered a heart attack after collapsing during that day’s stage of the Criterium International on Corsica. His death was announced on Monday evening just 24 hours after another Belgian Antoine Demoitie died in hospital after being run over (following a crash) by one of the race motos during Gent Wevelgem. Losing both riders is a tragedy but it’s the circumstances surrounding Demoitie’s fatal accident that has caused a wider discussion. Rider safety is a topic that’s been simmering along since last year when there was the first of many incidents where riders came off worse due to altercations with either a race support car or moto. Irony probably isn’t appropriate here but I haven’t read anything that suggests that Demoitie’s accident was avoidable; his team have even released a statement to that effect. Nevertheless it’s all too clear that in a contest between a rider and a car or moto, it’s the guy (or girl) on the bike who’s going to come off worst.

That said I’m not sure what can be done to make things significantly safer. Right now with things feeling pretty raw it’s easy to forget that the potential risks for riders from cars, motos and everything else from dogs without leads to street furniture have existed for years. While crashes like the one that took out several riders at last years Pais Vasco could easily have been prevented (poorly signed road furniture caused that one), it’s hard to see how every potential risk can be eliminated. I won’t disagree that some potential risks could be mitigated but in the week before Demoitie’s accident the same commentators who mourned his loss were bemoaning the lack of moto camera feeds in another race. I’m not diminishing what’s happened; I just don’t think there are quick or easy solutions.

Racing a bike has enough risk and potential injurious outcomes without riders wondering if they’re likely to be hit by an errant vehicle from the race caravan. The really enlightened solutions probably won’t emerge in the immediate aftermath of these two tragic deaths.

Continue reading Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

VCSE’s 2016 Season Preview

Welcome to 2016 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*. Ahead of last season I wrote about pro cycling’s latest wheeze to evolve with the advent of Velon. I was vary of a potential shift of power towards teams at the time, making the comparison between the changes seen in Football in the UK since the inception of the Premier League. It seems like I needn’t have worried. All we have seen from Velon is some occasionally interesting Go Pro (other bike cams are available) footage and the financial footing of teams seems as precarious as it ever was.

Some changes were proposed. Under Brian Cookson the UCI has pursued a low key reforming agenda that was inevitable after the fall out from the the scandals of recent years. Whether or not the sport needs 3 year licences for teams is debatable. The stability argument, that teams could reassure existing and potential sponsors that they would be racing at Tirreno Adriatico in 2018 is reasonable enough but it exposed where the power in the sport lies. ASO promotes many other races besides the Tour but if you’re an incoming title sponsor of a world tour team the one race you’re going to want to be seen at is La Grand Boucle. For a non world tour team securing an invite to a grand tour is often the difference between financial survival or ruin. There’s also been the unwritten rule that certain teams could expect an invite at the expense of potentially more worthy entrants pace Cofidis at the Tour or Androni at the Giro.

Securing the patronage of ASO (or RCS) has always been important for the outfits below the world tour level. With world tour teams guaranteed a slot on each of the world tours thus far falling out with the organiser hasn’t been a consideration up and until now. Crucially though ASO are unhappy with the UCI proposals, so much so that they want to take their races out of UCI categorisation. This puts a huge hole in the UCI’s 3 year licencing plan as suddenly the stability it suggested is overtaken by the need to stay onside with ASO to be at the grand depart of the world’s biggest cycle race.

Whether or not 3 year licences are the answer to how pro cycling can move forward is moot now that ASO have decided that as far they’re concerned; it’s a no. The impasse has somewhat faded as the new season is upon us (I’m writing this after the Tour Down Under and the day before the Dubai Tour). My guess at this stage is that a compromise or fudge will be found and I’ll be writing a similar article about the sport’s potential new dawn sometime next February.

Moves and Grooves

In the off season it has been evolution rather than revolution for most teams that echoes the uncertainty of the direction of travel discussed earlier. There are a few exceptions of course.

E3_Harelbeke_2012,_boonen_cancellara_op_de_kwaremont_(20265330611) (1)
Boonen v Cancellara for the last time?

Dimension Data (ex MTN Qhubeka) are the latest addition to the world tour teams having secured the services of Mark Cavendish (along with a couple of his consigliere for 2016. Moving up from Pro Conti removes the lottery of securing grand tour invitations (for now) but while the team will benefit from the stability there’s pressure too for the squad and the rider. Cav had a less than stellar 2015 and as the undisputed leader of his new team will be under the spotlight this year. Sprinting has come a long way since Cav, Eisel and Renshaw were casting all before them at HTC in 2009 and with the possibility that he will want to go to the Rio Olympics too I’m not sure Cav will be able to target the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee too.

The make up of Sky’s squad continues to evolve although the number of Brit’s in the team remains the same with Bradley Wiggins replaced by neo pro Alex Peters. Their big signings are former world champ Michael Kwiatkowski from Etixx and Mikel Landa from Astana. Kwiatkowski had a quiet year as befits the holder of the rainbow stripes but he’s got pedigree and versatility. Whether or not the team needs another rider in the Geraint Thomas mould I’m less sure of but it should allow the team to fight for more wins this year. Signing Landa i’m less sure of. The suggestion is that he will target the Giro after going close last year but I can’t help feeling this could go the way of Sky’s previous attempts to win the race. It’s a bold step to take a rider from a team that’s as controversial as Astana, even more so if you’re Sky. It’s uncertain that Landa will ride at the Tour but I would imagine that the tin foil hat brigade will be out in force if he does.

Etixx have lost Cavendish but gained Marcel Kittel alongside a few more ‘big’ signings. Seeing Kittel fall from grace in 2015 was painful at times and not ever entirely explained by the rider either. Will he go well in 2016 is as much of a question as; is Etixx the right team for him to prosper with? Other than having deep pockets are Etixx likely to be significantly better at leading out Kittel as they were Cavendish?

Richie Porte has moved to BMC, although this was announced so early in the ‘transfer window’ it’s ceased to be news. Everything went well for him right up to being Sky’s latest contender for the Giro and after that he was forced to dine out on what might have been. Here’s another move where I’m not sure if the ‘fit’ is anything other than financial and perhaps this further illustrates the fragile nature of a professional riders career. Sacrifice opportunity for cash? I might be doing Richie a huge disservice here but don’t BMC already have a GC rider?

This year will be the last match up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Well I say that, but actually the last time that truly happened was as long ago as 2012. Boonen has had less luck with injuries, but both riders were out of contention long before the big two of Flanders and Paris Roubaix last year. Everyone wants to see these two go head to head one more time but the emergence of riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb (last years winners of the Ronde and Roubaix respectively) will mean that the last of the old breed will need to be in top form and fitness to add to their wins.

What to watch

Well, all of them of course! OK that’s not strictly true and I admit to feeling a little jaded watching some of the cycling last year. The desert races will be an amuse bouche after not seeing anything since September but the season doesn’t really start for me until Paris Nice and Tirreno. Strade Bianche is emerging as a genuine classic and I’ll have high hopes that one of the semi-classics delivers a race as good as last years Gent Wevelgem.

The Ronde is the first of the must see races for me and still edges it over Roubaix. If Cancellara and Boonen are near the front at either it will be a good year.

The grand tours have a way of feeling like the greatest race you have ever seen when you’re in the thick of the actual race. I’ll be left wondering how the Tour is going to be able to top the Giro, although often finding (as in last year) that the Vuelta delivered more drama. The Giro / Vuelta ‘arms race’ of metres climbed and summits finished on continue while the Tour seems an altogether classier affair. Expect my opinion on which one has been the greatest to change after each edition.

So what should you expect from the 2016 cycling season? Should you tune in? The short answer is ‘Yes’. The beauty of the sport lies in it’s unpredictable nature and if 2016 can offer riders recovering from shaky starts to capture the rainbow jersey at the end of the year (Sagan) to new faces emerging as grand tour contenders (Chavez, Dumoulin) then there’s a great race out there waiting to happen.

*The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing

VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

I posted my thoughts on the Cycling News Reader Poll last year so here’s this years submission. I haven’t posted anything since the end of the Vuelta for all sorts of different reasons so there might be an end of season review feel to this post as well (maybe!).

I haven’t written about every nominee as it does feel a bit like the Cycling News team went with ten nominees for the Best Male category and then wondered if there would be a bit of a Twitterstorm if they didn’t have the same number of nominees in the other categories. While some of the nominations feel like they have been added for the sake of it, there are other categories where I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment on whether or not a riders inclusion is warranted. Either way, there won’t be pages and pages on the Mountain Bike or Cyclocross categories.

So without fanfare or drum roll here’s my picks for the 2015.

Best Male Road Rider

So the normal suspects you would expect to see in an end of year poll are hear, alongside a couple of surprises. Lets deal with those first.

Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan

Richie Porte started the year in fantastic form winning Paris Nice for the second time amongst other things and generally looking like a better rider than Chris Froome during the early part of the year. Things began to unravel at the Giro and he began to resemble the rider who hadn’t exactly thrived when he was asked to pick up the team leadership from Froome in the 2014 Tour. Porte’s results post his return to racing after the Giro were less than spectacular and he even found himself slipping in his support role to best pal Froome at the Tour. If I was filling out Porte’s report card in April he would have got a A star but ahead of what is now (probably) a make or break move to BMC in 2016 he’s probably a C minus.

Another ‘What were they thinking?’ addition to the Best Male nomination is Mark Cavendish. Cav started the year under pressure to deliver results at Etixx and ended the year with a new team. While he isn’t the only sprinter to have had a less than stellar year (Marcel Kittel anyone?) it wasn’t perhaps the return to winning ways that everyone (the rider, his team, his fans) wanted. Sure Cav notched up another Tour stage win but he was completely outshone by a resurgent Andre Griepel in terms of number of wins and by the German’s victory on the most important stage of all in Paris. Cav of course remains a massive personality in the peloton and among UK fans but even the most diehard Cav supporter would find it hard to justify his selection as the best rider.

Another early starter was Alexander Kristoff. After Flanders I asked if anyone could stop him from winning any race he chose. Well as with so many predictions there was an element of hubris and Kristoff didn’t go on to win stages at the Tour for fun. In fact other than a low key win towards the end of the year it felt as if the Katusha rider had slipped from the radar screen completely.

Perhaps the sprinter who did the best job of retaining form over the whole season was John Degenkolb. With Marcel Kittel’s catastrophic loss of form Degenkolb became the key focus for his Giant Alpecin team in 2015. That Degenkolb took his first monument in Milan San Remo was perhaps less of a surprise than him taking his second a matter of weeks later in Paris Roubaix. Unlike his rivals Degenkolb was adaptable enough to still win grand tour bunch sprints including the final day around Madrid in the Vuelta. Degenkolb, once a target for Etixx as an eventual replacement for Tom Boonen the irony is that while the team retain the shampoo brand title sponsor it is Kittel who is leaving for the Belgian outfit.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Best Male poll without the Tour winner and sure enough Chris Froome is included. I’ll credit Froomey for not quite sticking to the script this year and looking pretty ordinary on the bike until the latter stages of the Dauphine. The way that he and his Sky teammates bossed the Tour from stage 2 onwards without too much there to unsettle them deserved better than the piss that was literally poured on them in France. There was a tilt a Vuelta Tour double but that was undone by another accident that may or may not have been bought on by bike handling skills. A second Tour win for the honorary Brit is no mean achievement but no better or worse than the other grand tour winners from this year.

And what of those two? Alberto Contador won the Giro pretty much singlehanded as his Tinkoff teammates struggled to keep pace with Astana. It was pretty clear how much this had taken out of him when he was the first of the big names to really suffer in the Tour. The Giro win didn’t taste quite as sweet while struggling to keep up with Froome and co in July and it’s no surprise that Contador wants to go out with a band in France next year. Fabio Aru was up and down like a yoyo on the Giro and then later during the Vuelta but showed enough to hold on to second place in Italy and then go one better in Spain. Perhaps not the most popular winner of the Vuelta thanks to his team and the manner of the win he looks increasingly like the favoured rider at Astana.

When the BBC crown their Sports Personality each year the debate afterwards often centres less on the winners sporting success as much as are they in fact a personality. When Bradley Wiggins won in 2012 both boxes could be firmly ticked as he rocked up in a wickedly tailored suit and was pissed before the broadcast had even finished. All of that plus Britain’s first ever Tour winner and an Olympic Gold medallist to (Chelsea) boot! Froome the following year wasn’t really in the running, despite Sky’s best efforts to add colour to him. Politeness doesn’t really ‘sell’. Peter Sagan started the year unable to win. I wondered if the pressure of his multi million dollar contract at Tinkoff was having an effect. A trip to the US for the Tour of California where they LOVE him provided the rejuvination and while there wasn’t a win at the Tour the green jersey was duly claimed. It was the end of season single handed win at the world championships that delivered the result that Oleg Tinkoff’s millions demanded but it was the return of Sagan’s sense of fun in post stage interviews at the Tour that cements him as my pick for Best Male rider of 2015.

Best Male Team

Fortunately Cycling News allow us a choice. Don’t fancy any of their nominee’s? Pick one of your own. And that’s what I have done with my Best Male Team selection.

MTN Qhubeka might not have been the winningest team of 2015. In fact they didn’t pick up masses of victories full stop, but it was the significance of what they achieved this year that makes them my pick for Best Male Team.

Bringing Brian Smith on board as General Manager saw the team step up a gear with a number of high profile signings and key changes in equipment to become one of the most distinctive outfits in the peloton. A stage win in the Tour and the Vuelta and Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the overall at the Tour of Britain were the arguably bigger wins than the KOM jersey at the Dauphine but more importantly that was won by a black African rider: Daniel Teklehaimanot. Smith has the challenge of continuing to get the best out of an ageing team of ‘big’ names like new addition Cavendish and promoting the best of the African riders. If he can do this it could be one of the most important components of cycling becoming a more diverse and genuinely global sport.

Best Female Road Rider

Lizzie Armitstead. No contest really. It might be a little bit churlish to say that Marianne Vos being injured for most of the season gave Lizzie a clear run but that would be pretty disrespectful to a talented core of riders within the women’s pro peloton just as much as it would be disrespectful to Lizzie.

Winning the world cup for the second year in a row demonstrated her form over the course of the season and the world championships was the icing on the cake. More importantly the way that she rode the race in 2015 showed that she had learnt the lessons of 2014 and didn’t let a winning position slip. The pressure will be on now (not least from a tendency to big up GB medal hopes by lazy journo’s) for a gold medal in the Olympic road race in Rio next year. The course doesn’t suit her but if anyone has the mental ability to overcome that it’s Lizzie Armitsead.

Best Women’s Team

Boels Dolmans might seem like the obvious choice. They’re Lizzie Armitstead’s team as well as the berth for riders like Evelyn Stevens. But my pick for Best Women’s team would be Velocio SRAM. The team emerged from the remains of the Specialized Lululemon squad that announced it was folding at the end of the 2014 season. Initally crowd funded the team were ultimately received backing from Cervelo and SRAM for the 2015 season. For various reasons the team in this incarnation is no more and the riders had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a team for next year while there was still part of this year’s races to complete. It says a lot about this group of riders that they were still one of the winningest teams in the women’s peloton in 2015 and rounded off the season with the TTT world championship.

Keep reading for the rest of the VCSE winners here

Continue reading VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

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

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

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

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

Kan anyone katch Kristoff?

Tour of Flanders 2015

This year’s classics season is being turned on its head by a couple of unlikely teams; Sky and Katusha. Alexander Kristoff added another win for Katusha and his second monument victory today by winning the Ronde. Kristoff’s relatively straightforward success adds to Luca Paolini’s win in Gent Wevelgem last week and his own second place in Milan San Remo to place Katusha top of the teams in this year’s spring classics.

Alexander Kristoff winner Tour des Fjords 2 stage
Alexander Kristoff

After winning Milan San Remo the previous year Kristoff was naturally going to be one of the favourites for that race again this year but he hasn’t been seen as a rider who would figure as highly in the cobbled classics. He had been near the sharp end of the peloton in E3 and Gent Wevelgem but his three stage wins and taking the GC in this weeks 3 Days of De Panne made him a red hot tip for the Ronde. Kristoff was beginning to show his sprinting chops last year and he ran Marcel Kittel really close for the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee for the final stage of the Tour. He has is mining a rich vein of form at the moment that just makes the likelihood of him winning a bunch sprint seem like a foregone conclusion. Three stage wins on the relatively benign De Panne parcours didn’t necessarily mean that victory in the Ronde would be easy to come by. Kristoff appeared to realise this; attacking ahead of the final ascents of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg and building a small but ultimately decisive gap to the chasing group.

It could and indeed has been argued that this years spring races are wide open as they lack two principal characters; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen is rapidly running out of time to add to his Flanders and Roubaix totals and like 2013 he’s out of this years races through injury. Unlike 2013 Boonen didn’t even get as far as the early races after his tumble at the back of the pack early on in Paris Nice. Cancellara joined his great rival on the sick list after crashing out of E3 and the rest of the classics season when it was revealed he had fractured vertebrae. Boonen had shown the briefest indicators of form winning Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and animating sections of Roubaix last year but Cancellara has been the rider during the same period winning Flanders twice, Roubaix and E3 along with strong finishes in MSR. A master of hiding his form until it matters the only indication we had of Cancellara’s 2015 form was a high finish behind Kristoff in this years MSR. I can’t help feeling that a fit Fabs would have been a factor today if only because so many of the peloton look to him to decide how they’re going to run their own race.

In E3 the beneficiary of Cancellara’s absence was Sky’s Geraint Thomas. His win in the semi classic has made this Sky’s best classics showing to date and the Welshman was rightly considered a favourite today. It’s a measure of how results have increased the teams confidence that Sky tried to control a lot of the race today. Perhaps unfairly a lot of the mainstream reporting in the UK has centred on Bradley Wiggins who will attempt to win Paris Roubaix next weekend. Wiggins had been in good form on the road and off it in the run up to today with an emphatic victory in the TT stage at De Panne and in interviews where he cited his desire to help Thomas to victory in the Ronde. I’m absolutely certain that this was the Sky strategy with Wiggins planned as the rider to break up the bunch to set up a Thomas win. Unfortunately for Wiggins he slid off early in proceedings and spent the rest of the race at the wrong end of the pack. It will be interesting to see how the events of today impact next weekend. At one point it looked like Wiggins was going to be escorted back to the front by Bernie Eisel who had shepherded him at De Panne but this didn’t come to much. Was Wiggins physically unable to contribute or had he mentally checked out of the race at that point? He was still appearing in shot at the back of the peloton late into the race and it’s true that he needed a race at this distance to prepare for Roubaix. If Wiggins did decide that he wasn’t going to contribute today (for whatever reason) it could have implications for how much support he can expect next week. Sky went from having riders in support of Thomas at the front to suddenly having just Luke Rowe (who has been a super domestique in the classics this year). If Wiggins had stayed on the bike it’s possible that Thomas could have had something in reserve for the final k’s, maybe Wiggins would have been part of a three man break with Kristoff and Niki Terpstra. Let’s just take things at face value for a moment and say that Wiggins just came off and that was his day done. If there’s nothing more to it than that it does show how so much of one day racing is down to luck. Wiggins will need more of that commodity if he’s going to go out on a high in Roubaix’s velodrome next weekend.

Niki Terpstra has been Etixx Quick Step’s mister consistency with a podium place today to go with last weeks in Gent Wevelgem. For Etixx though this has been a pretty forgettable classics campaign. Zdenek Stybar’s win in Strade Bianche and Cavendish taking KBK are the only bright spots where the majority of discussion has been around how the team have failed to capitalise on having numbers in the final selection. Terpstra will defend his Paris Roubaix title next weekend and it will be a last throw of the dice for Etixx before the team turns its attention to the grand tours.

Terpstra probably should have gone long today if he wanted to beat Kristoff but my sense is that he went with him to attempt to cover for Stybar. Kristoff’s victory, like that of John Degenkolb in MSR, marks him as more than just a sprinter. With Thor Hushovd’s retirement last year (a party that Kristoff spoilt by snatching the win in Thor’s final race) he was always going to be the heir apparent for Hushovd’s ‘hammer’. In winning today Kristoff has demonstrated that he can emulate Hushovd further by being a factor in one day races and on the right course possibly another Scandinavian wearer of the rainbow stripes.

Just a perfect day..

Gent Wevelgem 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

Luca Paolini
Luca Paolini

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s going to run the Ronde? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #26

E3 Harelbeke / Gent Wevelgem 

Fabian Cancellara looked pretty unhappy with second place at Milan San Remo and he was probably just as miffed at the two fingers held up to him by the peloton while defending his E3 title last Friday. Cancellara had ridden pretty much side by side with Tom Boonen for much of the race before an incident saw him get gapped by the leading group of riders.

Can he beat Spartacus? - Peter Sagan
Can he beat Spartacus? – Peter Sagan

OK, so not winning MSR counts as a failure if you’re in the first rank of classics specialists, but for anyone else second place in the longest one day classic would be something to celebrate (ask Ben Swift how he feels about finishing third!). Cancellara rolled in at E3 inside the top 10, over a minute down on winner Peter Sagan, but the way that he tore up the field trying to get back in touch with the leaders was incredible even for a rider like Spartacus. After passing through the middle of some groups as if they were going backwards, Cancellara eventually came across a teammate Stijn Devolder who put in his own monster turn to try and get his team leader back in the game.

Up the road were two Omega Pharma riders; the in form Niki Terpstra and Stiyn Vandenbergh, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Sagan. Terpstra was on and off his radio like an anxious mum waiting for her teenage son to come home. Boonen, no doubt out of sorts owing to the terrible news of his girlfriend miscarrying had lost touch and was slipping out of contention. Or was he? At one point Cancellara and Devolder had cajoled the chasers into life and got within 40 seconds of the leading four, but Boonen seemed to be a spent force.

While the OPQS boys were told to hurry up and wait, Sagan was doing his own Cancellara impression judging by the gesticulations he was making to his fellow escapee’s. As Cancellara often wonders, Sagan couldn’t see why Thomas, Terpstra and Vandenbergh weren’t riding with, if not for him. Obviously there was an advantage for Thomas (and the two Omega Pharma teammates depending on the message they were currently getting from their team car) to stay away, but if it came to a bunch sprint there was only ever going to be one winner. Terpstra and Vandenbergh were undone by the conflicting messages and perhaps the Dutchman by his win earlier in the week. Thomas didn’t have that excuse to use and if he had anything in the tank as the race entered the final kilometres surely he should have attempted a break of his own, rather than covering the ones tried by Terpstra and Vandenbergh. Surely he didn’t think he could take Sagan in a sprint to the line? Whatever he did think, the outcome was always going to be a Sagan win.

You might think that winning on Friday would have given the Cannondale rider a hall pass for Sunday’s Gent Wevelgem, the race he won in convincing fashion last year with the famous wheelie over the line followed by the infamous bottom pinching incident a week later at the Ronde. OK, so Sagan didn’t win, but third place isn’t to shabby (ask Ben Swift how he feels about third place again). The race was won by Giant Shimano’s John Degenkolb who had been much fancied for MSR. Its tempting to wonder if Degenkolb was feeling the possibility of getting usurped by yet another product of the Giant sprint programme who was winning for fun in Catalunya. Second went to VCSE MSR tip Arnaud Demare; the race being something of a sprinters classic after all.

So ahead of this weekends Tour of Flanders who’s likely to figure and who’s likely to win? Let’s deal with the contenders first. The best team will be Omega Pharma. Boonen doesn’t look his best, but Terpstra and the rest of the supporting cast look super strong. They will have riders at the front with or without Boonen, but if Boonen does falter they will need to think a lot faster to get the win. A good each way would be Sep Vanmarcke who’s been in touch in a lot of the races and has a couple of top 10’s in E3 and Gent going into the race. Sky won’t be anywhere, unless Thomas can deliver an unlikely podium. It’s not really a race for Ian Stannard who’s also injured after a crash at Gent.

Which leaves us Sagan and Cancellara. If Cancellara hadn’t been held up at E3 VCSE suspects he would have rode away from the field in a repeat of last years race. It’s hard to imaging Cancellara would have waited for Sagan if he had been in the group of four last Friday. This isn’t to say Sagan’s not strong. A win and third place in three days is a great performance by any standard, but for all of his ability to read a race and to ride unsupported he needs a sprint to win. Cancellara won’t give him that opportunity on Sunday.

Volta a Catalunya / Criterium International

So Giant have yet another sprint talent in their ranks to go with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. Luka Mezgec took three out of the seven stages available, albeit against a second / third rank of sprinters in Catalunya. The race had promised much with top BC talent lining up including Froome, Contador and Rodriguez.

Froome had missed Tirreno Adriatico with back problems so this was his first race since defending his Tour of Oman title back in February. Stage 3 was the first mountain stage and the winner was Rodriguez with a trademark late dig to outdistance his rivals and take the race lead overall. Froome had attempted to ride away himself but was soon caught and then overhauled by Purito, Contador, Nairo Quintana and perhaps the biggest surprise Tejay Van Garderen.

Van Garderen was the winner the following day in the weather effected (at least if you were trying to watch it on TV) stage to Vallter 2000 (why do they give ski resorts names like this?). Froome slipped further down the GC to 7th and by the time the race had ended  with a final rain swept stage in Barcelona was off the GC table altogether.

Contador looked like his mission was to strike a psychological blow to Froome. He let Rodriguez go once he had overhauled Froome on stage 3 and didn’t really try that hard to snatch the GC despite only having a few seconds gap between him and the leader for the remainder of the race. Does this tell us much about the likely fortunes of the contenders for the grand tours? Possibly not, although Sky have tended to want to exert a vice like grip on the races they enter their Tour de France team leaders in over the last few years. Despite this mishap, it should be remembered that Froome looked the class of the field in Oman and lost his key lieutenant Richie Porte early on to illness here. If Froome is vulnerable, if Contador is back on form, if Van Garderen is clear team leader at the Tour then 2014 won’t go entirely Sky’s way. At this point, however, Froome probably remains the man to beat.

Weight of expectation also seems to be taking its toll on Quintana who hasn’t looked good in his last two outings. He won the Pais Vasco last year and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the remainder of his preparation races for the Giro. Porte is Sky’s nominated team leader in Italy and he’s lacking in form and fitness. With the favourites running out of time to get in shape it could play into the hands of someone like Rigoberto Uran or Michele Scarponi for the honours this time around in the fight for pink.

Sky were absent from the Criterium International this year with Froome electing to ride in Catalunya instead. The race had a resultant French feel and French winner in the unluckiest rider from last years Tour Jean-Christophe Peraud. Peraud along with Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil in Catalunya look in good form this year and this bodes well for an improvement in French fortunes at their grand tour in July.