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.

No Fairytales in ‘Hell’

Tour of Flanders & Paris Roubaix 2016

Mixed emotions. Matthew Hayman, 37 years old, erstwhile Rabobank, Sky and now Orica Green Edge domestique / road captain. Aussie transplanted to Flanders and a seemingly perennial fixture in the breakaway in the last few editions of the ‘Hell of the North’. A pro’s pro, just had another couple of years tacked onto the contract that was supposed to be his last. This year’s Paris Roubaix his first race back after an early season crash had seen him miss most of the Flandrian classics. Of all the races to come back in; the one he loves most of all. The one he has dreamed of winning, never quite believing that he could.

Tom Boonen - Denied!
Tom Boonen – Denied!

Tom Boonen, classics superstar. Past his best? Maybe. Many predict that this year could be his last, certainly his last chance at adding to his tally of victories in the Ronde and Roubaix. Another win in Paris Roubaix would make him the all time leader with five cobble trophies on his mantelpiece.

With those back stories you could have been happy with an outcome where either rider took the win. But then no one would have predicted a Mat Hayman victory when the race got under way last Sunday; probably not even Hayman himself.

You could have got odds of 800/1 to Matthew Hayman even after he got into the breakaway. After all, no one really expects the break to survive right? There might have been an omen in another unfancied rider getting a top ten finish in Flanders the previous weekend, but we’ll return to him later. Hayman was still attracting decent odds after he managed to survive the catch and hang with a pretty stellar group of chasers that included Boonen alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard.

A rider definitely on his swansong Fabian Cancellara had been in the group behind Boonen’s alongside Peter Sagan. Over the last few years Cancellara, especially when he’s fit and on form was always a threat for the win. He had suffered with injuries last year but entering his final season he had made it clear that Flanders and Roubaix where his big targets. Denied by an inspired solo attack the week before in Belguim I anticipated Cancellara getting his own back last weekend. I didn’t see Boonen as a contender, any more so than Hayman in fact. That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to see Boonen win; I have always been in team Tom rather than in team Fabs. It was just hard to see the evidence that Boonen would have the legs to ride to the win like he did in 2012.

The possibility that Boonen might be in with a shot increased when Cancellara crashed as the race went through the final cobbled sectors on the route to Roubaix. Sagan managed to avoid the crash (that’s a photo that’s worth doing a Google image search for) and Cancellara re-mounted but neither were in a position to challenge anymore.

Even when it had got down to five riders most peoples money wouldn’t have been on Hayman but he was the only rider who was able to bridge to Boonen after his late attack. Vanmarcke had attempted to solo away on a couple of occasions over the cobbles but each time he was pegged back by one of the remaining group riding him down or the whole group combining to do so.

Perhaps Boonen thought that he would be able to outsprint Hayman when the time came in the velodrome. Vanmarcke had arrived by this point and maybe Boonen was too vary of him to pay attention the the bike length that Hayman had stole from him as the race exited the final bend. Hayman threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line. It didn’t seem like such an emphatic victory as he reacted to what he had just done after he stopped. Viewed from a more sympathetic angle it became clear that this wasn’t a win by inches.

Boonen for his part seemed philosophical in defeat, suggesting that (unlike Cancellara) he might return for the classics again next year; “Why not?” he said. The trouble is, this was (probably) his best (if not final) chance of winning Paris Roubaix for a fifth time. Since his last win he has either been injured or unable to make the key breaks in the race. Four years have inevitably taken their toll. I think the Boonen of 2012 would have finished the race the same way he did then in 2016 but this version cannot reach those heights now. Tom Boonen won’t be around in 2020 anymore than Mat Hayman and perhaps Boonen’s enigmatic smile on the Roubaix podium reflected the realisation that his best chance of winning had been snatched from him by the least likely of victors.

If Roubaix didn’t produce the perfect fairytale ending you could argue the Flanders managed it nicely. Peter Sagan had won solo the previous weekend in Gent Wevelgem and did the same in the Ronde to deny Fabian Cancellara a farewell victory. Sagan accepts that other riders won’t work with him in a way that Cancellara has never seemed to manage and he seemed equally at ease about the ‘curse’ of the rainbow jersey that so many commentators love to cite anytime any world champion cyclist fails to win in the stripes. If you believe in such things (along with unicorns I suppose), Sagan put that to bed in Gent and looked the strongest he has ever been in the Ronde.

There was a nice symmetry in both world champions winning their respective editions of the race. Lizzie Armitstead is starting to look like Marianne Vos as she seems to bend each race she rides to her will. Vos who returned to racing in a rather more low key event in her native Holland the same weekend will no doubt recapture the form that made her the rider to beat in the women’s peloton but right now Armitstead is the benchmark in women’s cycling.

Hardly surprising that two of the biggest races on the calendar could produce so many headline grabbing stories in the space of seven days. I’ll admit the one for me hasn’t gone completely unmissed but just in case I’m going to share it. Now the Ronde and Roubaix have something else in common besides cobbles. They’re both world tour races and as such if you’re a world tour team then you have to turn up. In previous seasons it has been reasonable to wonder if teams like Movistar would bother with the cobbled classics given half a chance to sack off races that don’t really translate that well to Spain. But this year something changed. Movistar got a rider in the break in Flanders. Not only that, when the break got caught the Movistar rider, Imanol Erviti stayed with the leading group and crossed the line 7th.

Fast forward a week to Roubaix and who’s in the break again? That man Erviti. Now in all the excitement about Mat Hayman Erviti’s 9th place finish is inevitably a bit less of a headline grabber. But here’s the thing. In these two monuments only one rider (Sep Vanmarcke) has delivered two top ten results. This isn’t to suggest that Movistar are suddenly going to be a force in the classics but Erviti’s rides deserve a bit more coverage than they are likely to get after a pair of particularly classic editions of the Ronde and Roubaix.

A couple of other mentions.. 

The new job kept me from watching Pais Vasco live but even a highlights show is enjoyable when Steve Cummings steals another win. Alberto Contador took the overall, but I just haven’t seen enough stage racing to make the call on the grand tours yet.

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

Who needs sunshine anyway? Enter the cobbled classics

The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.

Poels the new Porte?

I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.

Richie Porte - new team, same story?
Richie Porte – new team, same story?

Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.

Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.

Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.

Boasson Hagen redux

One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.

Kristoff - too kwick for Kav?
Kristoff – too kwick for Kav?

His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.

So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.

* See the screenshot at the top of this page

Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

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?

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 

Is that the US live feed i’m watching? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #41

Milan San Remo 2015 

If ever there’s a race to follow a script, at least as far as when something actually happens it’s got to be Milan San Remo. Every year there’s a rumour of, if not an actual route change to be implemented with the intention of making the race easier / harder for sprinters / climbers. And if the parcours is changed you can be pretty much certain that it won’t make the slightest difference and it will be fine to go to the garden centre (it’s a UK thing) or have dinner with the family and tune in when the race reaches the Cipressa.

And so it goes that the 2015 variety of MSR followed the script pretty much to the letter. Sure the key incidents were specific to this years edition but we could have easily foregone an hour or so of super slow motion rain jacket removal or watching riders going through the musettes.

OK, so if you had tuned in with 25km to go you would have missed the crash on a wet descent that took out one of the Sky team and allowed Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift to go clear of the peloton. They mopped up the last of the break but were caught by some determined chasers including Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar as they climbed the Cipressa. Sky were ostensibly working for Swift, but it’s hard to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have had the green light to go for the win too. It was the Welshman who launched the last forlorn attack of the day on the Poggio with van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss for company. With those two caught on the descent it was down to a sprinters selection to contest the win on the Via Roma (the 2015 route change natch).

There were some choice names here too; last years winner and arguably race favourite Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Bling Matthews and Paris Nice stage winner Davide Cimolai. I signed off my last post with the prediction that Sagz wouldn’t do anything in MSR and so it proved; fourth place is not what Oleg Tinkoff expects (more of which later). My money was on Kristoff after he got back into the leading group with the help of the smartest guy in the peloton Luca Paolini. But who surfed the wheels from way back to deny them all? John Degenkolb, the Mr Versatile of the sprinters (this is the guy who finished on the podium at Paris Roubaix last year). OK, he was hardly long odds for MSR but I don’t remember him winning from so far back before. It’s a great win and should give Degenkolb equal billing at Giant alongside Marcel Kittel now (if he didn’t have it already).

I wonder if the result doesn’t have implications for another Giant rider. Warren Barguil has struggled since his breakthrough stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta. His situation reminds me a little of Mark Cavendish’s short stay at Sky, albeit they’re different types of rider. If Barguil is going to develop as a stage racer and certainly a grand tour rider it’s hard to see how he can do this at Giant, which is a team that is to all intents and purposes predicated as a sprint outfit. Much as I think Giant would want to keep him I can’t help wondering if Barguil would do better elsewhere. Dave Brailsford has talked about winning the Tour with a French rider, might Barguil fit the Sky mould?

Since Ben Swift claimed the final podium spot in last years MSR he’s been touted as a classics rider. When the Sky threesome went clear I thought he had a great opportunity to win the race solo if he could have used Rowe and then Thomas to leap frog over the final two climbs. This would have relied on the rest of the peloton to wave the metaphorical white flag perhaps, but it looked like Swift didn’t really have the legs in the sprint either. Classics wise Sky are now in worse position than they were a year ago. Ian Stannard may have repeated his Het Nieuwsblad win from 12 months ago but the teams MSR result is disappointing in comparison. Sky really need a result in the Ronde or Roubaix to show that they have taken a step forward in one day racing.

Volta Catalunya 2015 

I could have been forgiven for thinking I had tuned in to one of the US races so bad was the television feed from the Volta Catalunya (they seem to have dropped the ‘a’ in 2015) this week. The weather hasn’t been all that but we lost an entire ‘live’ broadcast yesterday (stage 2). There was a silver lining in that I didn’t have to see an Alejandro Valverde stage win though.

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador

It’s been quite a fun race so far. The peloton completely messed up the time gaps to the three man break on stage 1 allowing CCC rider Maciej Paterski to take the win and the best part of a 3 min lead on GC. It was as you were GC wise after stage 2 and then the big hitters started to emerge today on stage 3.

Chris Froome has returned to racing after missing Tirreno Adriatico through illness and based on today’s performance he’s still not quite there. Froome had only Richie Porte left for support on the final climb as Tinkoff took advantage of several crashes on the descent of the penultimate climb to do some damage to the peloton. Bjaarne Riis has been suspended from Tinkoff for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (there’s a good article about that here) although Sagan’s result in MSR has been suggested as the catalyst. Alberto Contador looked in good shape today, almost back to his stage win earlier this season in the  Ruta del Sol as far I was concerned.

The Contador group that led into Girona included Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Garmin Cannondale pair Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. While Contador seemed most concerned with Porte taking his turn on the front (Aru and Uran knew their place and rode when they were told to), no one seemed to be taking much notice of AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. He attacked as the group reached the outskirts of town and by the time anyone had decided to respond it was already to late and Pozzovivo had a relatively easy win after a preceding hard 155 kms.

Paterski relinquished his race lead to Pierre Rolland who may well lose the leaders jersey in turn tomorrow on the queen stage to La Molina tomorrow. The big names are around 2.20 back on Rolland and Froome isn’t so far away another 20 seconds or so behind. If he can come back the way he did after Contador took his (Ruta del Sol) stage win earlier this year with one of his own at the same event, the GC could be Froome’s for the taking. There are plenty of other names in the mix though and tomorrow’s stage is likely to be a good one. Let’s hope they sort out the TV pictures.

A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

Spring classics opening weekend

After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.

The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.

Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.

Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.

Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*

Continue reading A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

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.