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’

On what to do when you’re caught short in Dubai

There probably isn’t any other sport that offers the accessibility to the ‘action’ than professional road cycling. Mountain biking at the highest level requires a ticket to spectate, but even at the worlds greatest races like the Tour there’s no charge to see Cavendish, Contador and Froome. There are one or two downsides to watching this free event though. Choosing the right vantage point to see the peloton go by is important, but so is the type of race. With average speeds of 40kmh plus on flat stages your taste of the action could be over in seconds. It’s not surprising that the biggest crowds gravitate towards the climbs where there’s interest from the front of the race to back with the specialist climbers trailed by those who are battling to beat the time cut off. The biggest crowds away from the grand tours tend to be in countries where there’s a strong cycling culture, but that hasn’t stopped the UCI and race organisers promoting races in less obvious locations.

Taylor Phinney - Dubia Tour Winner
Taylor Phinney – Dubai Tour Winner

Hosting a stage race in Dubai isn’t so unusual with races in Qatar and Oman already well established. A race in one of the richest, albeit smallest countries in the world. would have made sense to the people behind it. That said there were mutterings when the race was announced; was there a need for another sprint orientated, desert based stage race early in the season? Getting big names like Cavendish signed on to the project early on was certainly going to help.  While the race was never going to get full world tour status in its first year the field including numerous big names including world champion Rui Costa, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel. The race would be held over four stages; an opening time trial, two out-and-out sprint stages with a lumpier stage that might favour the classics riders in between.

With world TT champion Tony Martin in the Omega Pharma line up the winner of the opening stage might have seemed like a foregone conclusion. Martin was due to leave the starters hut late on, but before that we had the unusual sight of riders using standard road bikes for the test. The decision was taken, apparently on cost grounds, to run normal bikes to help out the lower division teams like Dubai Skydive. It did seem strange that a race held in Dubai should be so cost conscious! As things turned out Martin could finish no better than fifth on the stage. The win was taken by BMC’s Taylor Phinney who would take the leaders blue jersey, designed by Versace no less, and hold it for the rest of the event. Martin blamed his late start, but it’s easy to understand why the organisers would have wanted the rainbow stripes going off last to try to establish more interest in the race. The opening TT ran around the skyscrapers of central Dubai and watching a test live, often less than scintillating, was further hampered by loss of pictures due to the size of the buildings all around. It was at least one way to learn that someones idea of architecture is to create a pastiche of Big Ben for their latest addition to the Dubai skyline.

Like the sprint stages in Qatar the format in Dubai was often a parcours that involved heading out of the central area before returning for the finish. Stage two finishing at the man-made ‘palm’ that juts into the Arabian sea was inevitably billed as a Kittel Cavendish showdown. Cav, reunited with lead out man Mark Renshaw was making all the right noises before the race began. At the finish it was Kittel from Sagan with the British champion outside the top 20 even. Kittel won the two remaining stages also, surprising everyone at the finish of stage three by managing to keep with the leaders over the climbs. Cavendish too wasn’t left behind, but unlike the Giant riding giant he wasn’t near enough to contest the sprint.

Cavendish seemed more agitated, according to Eurosport co commentator Brian Smith ahead of the final stage, but it looked like a mechanical spared any criticism of his lead out. We shouldn’t read too much into the Kittel white wash. In the immediate aftermath of the final stage Cav was all smiles as he congratulated his rival. It looks as if they’re good friends too, based on the exchanges between the two on Twitter.  It was a somewhat experimental sprint train for Cavendish too with new signing from BMC, Peter Velits and Renshaw. While all eyes were on Kittel, Renshaw was well in the mix on the sprints which suggests he still has the speed to get Cavendish where he needs to be when it counts. If anyone seemed annoyed on the final stage it was Peter Sagan who crashed towards the end and threw his broken Cannondale away either in anger at himself or the unknown assailant who took him out. Phinney was also in the mix in each sprint and confided that he had enjoyed his best ever pre season in terms of preparation. He could be one to watch in the classics this year and BMC are another team that seem to be improving under new management after an underwhelming 2013.

With the access all areas nature of stage racing comes a similar low fi level of the facilities for the riders as well as spectators. Its not unusual to see teams regular support vehicles absent in some of the fly-away races, but something that’s absent for the riders at every race is toilet facilities. Another unique aspect of watching live cycling is the sight of riders peeling away from the peloton. A sudden bout of punctures and mechanicals? Oh no, this is the inevitable toilet break and is invariably followed by a swift cut away to spare the viewers blushes as the riders relieve themselves. There are of course varying techniques that are employed. Greg Lemond famously used one of his domestiques casquettes (cap) when struck down with diarrhea at the Tour. Some of the better bike handlers like Tom Boonen are inclined to pull down their bibs and do their business on the road, sometimes putting a  hand on another rider for support as they go. In the polished streets of Dubai it was something of a dilemma then with no convenient bushes to hide behind. VCSE wonders just who’s wall it was that got used on that final stage in Dubai.

Picture credit – Flickr Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierredebrouillard/12384230573/