Swiss roll over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #27

Tour of Flanders 2014

“I’ve got this.. I’ve got this..” or words to that effect was Sep Vanmarcke’s message to his team car as he approached the finish line after 250 kilometres of racing at the Ronde. “No I haven’t” is what he should have said after he crossed the line in third place to Fabian Cancellara (OK, let’s be honest it was probably some Franco / Belge expletives).

Can I win Roubaix too? - Fabian Cancellara
Can I win Roubaix too? – Fabian Cancellara

Vanmarcke wasn’t the only one kicking himself. BMC’s Greg van Avermaet had gone away late on and it felt like he could go one better than his Het Nieuwsblad 2nd place from earlier in the year. This years Ronde came down to a sprint of the track variety (missing only track stands) and it was 2013 winner Cancellara who out foxed his rivals. A week away from Paris Roubaix his rivals must be wondering what they can do to deny Cancellara another win in next weeks race. Whether or not you think Spartacus possesses a sprint, the fact is Vanmarcke and van Avermaet (in particular) are decent quick men. Stijn Vandenbergh, an analogue rider against digital rivals recognised that in a four way sprint he would be favourite for fourth place and attacked first. Indicative of his place as Tom Boonen’s bag carrier, Vandenbergh gave up almost as soon as he started, sacrificing a lead that looked as if it could stick, as a lack confidence manifested itself immediately. Vandenbergh’s bid to escape might have lacked conviction but it looked most likely to succeed. Instead as the final few hundred metres disappeared beneath their wheels it was Cancellara who got the drop on the other three. Unlike last year, this wasn’t a victory to savour in the final kilometre’s Cancellara had to work for this one and the emotions weren’t released until he crossed the line and began punching the air.

Vanmarcke and van Avermaet rolled over in second and third and in disbelief; “what just happened”. The result is potential hex on both riders, experiencing another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. The positives are that both riders (and in fairness Vandenbergh too) have been consistent performers in the classics so far this year, but the fact is that this was a race both men could have won. It cannot be disputed either that Cancellara is the srongest rider in the classics right now and in the monuments when it really counts. It’s hard to see who’s going to beat him this year and Trek must feel vindicated in pulling out all of the stops to deny Sky taking him on last year when Radioshack finished as headline sponsor.

Having the numbers when the selection had taken place was no advantage for Omega Pharma Quick Step. The problem for QPQS was tactical. By the time it was clear that Tom Boonen was coming up short again, they lacked a rider who could take up the challenge of beating Cancellara. Boonen’s heavyweight shadow Vandenbergh had been sent up the road to cover van Avermaet’s late break, but as is so often the case he lacks the speed and guile to carve out a win for himself. Boonen, chasing a fourth Ronde victory may have believed until the last and that might be why the in form Niki Terpstra was released too late to catch the leading four.

Boonen wasn’t the only pre-race favourite who popped. Peter Sagan looked like he wished that the race distance had been about 50km less and was unable to go with Cancellara when the Trek team leader attacked. Given the choice Sagan would swap his E3 victory and the win that almost wasn’t in stage 1 of the Three Days of De Panne for a win in the Ronde. At 24 he can potentially be a classics contender for another ten years, but it seems that Sagan is subdued by the pressure to deliver a monument win. At least he will have a week to recover ahead of Paris Roubaix; the De Panne stage win looks extremely poor value if it was this that left Sagan without legs today.

This years edition was a bit of a crashfest with accidents ranging from the typical for a cobbled classic to the bizarre, such as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych getting unseated by a female spectator’s handbag. His teammate Stijn Devolder who had proved so valuable to Cancellara at E3 seemed to only feature on camera immediately after another mishap in an accident prone afternoon for the Belgian champion.

And so to your VCSE predictions. We tipped Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the our last post (http://tinyurl.com/pvkebup) and predicted that OPQS would be the strongest team. Geraint Thomas was an unlikely podium for Sky, but he was their best finisher in 8th place. Can we keep it up for Paris Roubaix next week? If you want to find out, follow the blog! Here’s a thought though; late entry to the Ronde Bradley Wiggins finished in 32nd place. Can he go better in the ‘hell of the north’ next Sunday?

Your world cup leader is..

Great to see Lizzie Armitstead leading the points table in the women’s World Cup. She finished second to Bols Dolmans teammate Ellen van Djik in the women’s Tour or Flanders today after winning the opening round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It’s been a great week for Lizzie as she signed a contract extension to 2016 with her Boels Dolmans team.

Tour of the Basque Country

Starts tomorrow! Last year’s edition was one of the highlights of the 2013 season with biblical rain and some outstanding rides from eventual winner Nairo Quintana and KOM Caja Rural’s Amets Txurruka. Quintana is missing this year; Movistar will be led by Alejandro Valverde. Ag2R have a potential double team in Jean-Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur to match up against previous grand tour winners Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal and Alberto Contador. There’s a strong Basque presence including (interestingly) Sky led by in form Mikel Nieve in the absence of Froome or Porte in what’s often seen as an important tune up for the Giro. With Quintana absent too, we shouldn’t read too much into this, but the race could be an opportunity for one of Sky’s new GC orientated signings (Phil Deignan is racing too) to raise themselves up the pecking order on the death star.

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’

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…