Swift Returns – VCSE’s Racing Digest #25

Milan San Remo 2014

In exchange for a perfect ribbon of smooth tarmac it’s probable that residents living alongside the Poggio, the final climb of the Milan San Remo route, can leave with the inconvenience of the race one day in early spring each year. The road is deserving of it’s pristine status as it by the time reaches it’s summit with 6 kilometres to go the race is either won or about to be.

Winner MSR 2014 - Alexander Kristoff
Winner MSR 2014 – Alexander Kristoff

This is, depending on your point of view, the beauty or the problem with Milan San Remo. The longest classic at almost 300km in length and with a largely benign profile it’s the ‘monument’ that is seen as offering the best chance of a sprint finish. The Poggio and it’s predecessor climb on the route, the Cipressa have been included over the years to try and keep interest in a race that can see the winning rider take 7 hours to complete the distance. The idea is that the climbs will force a selection or provide a breakaway with the kind of gap they would need to stay away to the line. It’s true that each ascent has thinned out the peloton over the last couple of years, but even as the race has entered the final kilometre it’s been anyone’s race.

Last year through up a surprise winner in MTN Quebeka’s Gerald Ciolek. The race had been part neutralised after heavy snow had fallen on the route and the remainder of the race was run in the kind of conditions you might expect in Belgium, rather than hugging the Mediterranean. Ciolek was unfancied ahead of the race in MTN Quebeka’s first season racing in Europe. This might have been the deciding factor that allowed him to burst to the head of the race at the crucial point, producing a sprint that beat a high profile podium comprising Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.

Milan San Remo receives live television coverage as the first of the five ‘monument’ one-day classics. It’s hard to imagine a broadcaster taking any more than the final couple of hours though as the first 200km are pretty dull viewing. Not quite as inclement as last year, the early part of this years race provided interest in deciding who has the worst helmet design in the peloton if nothing else. Trying to predict a winner from the riders showing themselves, even with 60km to go, is speculation at best.

The fancied riders this year were the pure sprinters like Cavendish, Degenkolb and Greipel. Sagan, of course, was in the mix too, but a later change to the route had much of the pre-race discussion centred on the likelihood of a bunch sprint finish. The first firm potential race winning attack came from Vincenzo Nibali who attacked ahead of the Poggio and overhauled the remains of the break ahead of the final climb. Can you imagine a GC style rider from Sky putting in attack like that? The Nibabli cameo lasted 15km and by the time the Poggio was reached the Sicilian was out the back suffering from a lack of legs or lack of support for the final push.

The group that was left was larger than last year and included Ciolek, hinting that he might not be a one hit wonder as far as the race was concerned. Sagan and Cancellara were in the mix too but so were the some of the sprinters, Cavendish included. There was much post race discussion on social media about eventual winner Alexander Kristoff who had odds that would have reflected Ciolek last year at 100-1. What sparked the discussion was that Kristoff had been tipped figuratively if not literally by some commentators as someone who “..loves long races”.

Led out for much of the finale by Luca Paolini, in truth Kristoff didn’t look to be in much difficulty of losing in the sprint to the line. The race was for the podium places, although judging from Cancellara’s reaction on the line he must have thought he was closing. The top 10 had some interest lines though. Ben Swift’s third place finish is the Sky riders biggest result for some time. Like a number of his teammates, VCSE hasn’t really been convinced of Swift’s chances against the world’s best sprinters, but yesterday’s result will probably be heralded as something of a breakthrough. It was the first time Swift has run MSR and it’s a race he has suggested he would do well in. Whether that’s based on more than just a feeling he has isn’t clear, but Swift was on the front of the peloton riding in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen late in the race and it was his supposed team leader that faded and not Swift. Following Ian Stannard’s win at OHN this podium will add to the theory that Sky are beginning to show more form in the classics, but at this stage the VCSE view remains that they’re just having a better year. Stannard was praised for his 6th place in last years MSR, so Swift can expect to get some favourable press and more importantly for the rider more chances to ride this year.

Sagan scraped into the top 10 and didn’t look like the rider described in pre-race discussions. Is he feeling the pressure to deliver this year? Cancellara picked up another podium and possibly one that was looking less likely. With Tom Boonen absent from MSR for personal reasons it’s not possible to draw to many conclusions about the match up to follow at E3 this Friday and looking further ahead to the Ronde and Paris Roubaix. Whether Boonen is able to put personal tragedy aside (will he want to?) may determine the direction of the remaining spring races.

Quick look ahead to the Tour of Catalunya

Dan Martin will defend his title but all eyes will be on Chris Froome in his first race back since missing Tirreno Adriatico with a back injury. The line up is pretty starry actually with Joaquim Rodriuez, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Chris Horner all riding. There will be lots of interestin sub plots including the Columbian match up between Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur.

Obviously, the race is a warm up for all involved, but with Betancur and Contador coming off strong wins in Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico respectively the prospects for some punches to be traded on the mountain stages on Wednesday and Thursday look good.

Froome will be supported by Sky’s normal roster of super domestiques with David Lopez and Mikel Nieve already lookin strong this year. Froome will also have Richie Porte, his closest ally from last years success at the Tour. Might Sky throw us all a curve ball this year and back Porte for GC? Porte hasn’t looked that strong yet this year and the Giro is nearer on the horizon. However, Froome will want to show that his injury is just a bump on the road if he’s to maintain the psychological advantage he enjoyed over his rivals last year.

Whatever happens, it’s looking like a good race to watch. It’s just a shame that Martin will probably be outgunned in his title defence. It’s hard to see him being allowed to escape and win the queen stage like he did last year and from there the overall.

It’s on… racing to the sun via the two seas – VCSE’s Racing Digest #23

Sky find form in the classics.. or do they?

Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.

Classics breakthrough for Sky? - Ian Stannard
Classics breakthrough for Sky? – Ian Stannard

Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.

While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.

Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.

So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.

Boonen’s back

Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.

We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.

Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.

His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.

Sky upset the ASO applecart

With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.

The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?

In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.

With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?

Valverde – pas normale?

After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.

The Cav & Wig Show – VCSE’s Racing Digest #20

Tour of Britain round up

In our last post we discussed then (plain old) Bradley, now Sir Bradley Wiggins performance at last years Tour of Britain. In what should have been a valedictory event for the 2012 Tour de France and Olympic time trial winner, the Sky rider instead abandoned the race at the halfway point after a bizarre performance during which time he turned round and rode back the way he came in search of teammate Mark Cavendish.

Français : Bradley Wiggins, vainqueur du Crité...
Back to his best:  Bradley Wiggins(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wiggins stated aim this season, to win the Giro d’Italia, had looked in doubt from the outset as the Wigan based rider was unable to repeat his imperious form of the previous year and he often struggled to make the top five on GC in his preparation events like the Giro de Trentino. Wiggins hopes in the Giro went down the drain with the heavy rainfall that was such a feature at the event. A seemingly innocuous crash in the first week seemed to damage his confidence and he withdrew before the race finished. Pre Giro there had also been the debate, often fueled by Wiggins, about leadership of the Sky team at this years Tour de France. His performance at the Giro was probably the confirmation that the Sky hierarchy needed that Chris Froome, as well as being more suited to the parcours, was now the number one rider at the team.

And so it was a different Bradley Wiggins that emerged from the aftermath of Team Sky’s celebration of a second successive Tour win, making a low key return a week after the Grand Boucle in the Tour of Poland. He was entered in this event to target the individual time trial stage, pitching himself against one of his chief rivals for the world TT championships. Interviewed in the build up to the race the world’s TT was held up as the now 10kg heavier Wiggins goals for the end of season. And there, quietly in the background, was the announcement that in addition to the individual test, he would lead Sky at this years Tour of Britain and it was a race he intended to win.

There has been some critical mass building to Wiggins performance in last weeks race. His actual race form hadn’t sparkled after winning the stage in Poland, but he was finishing races and becoming a decent interviewee again. It can’t have been easy for Wiggins to admit that the reason he didn’t call Chris Froome to congratulate him in Paris was his fault as he didn’t have his mobile number. Both Wiggins and Sky had kept things low key when commenting on his participation in Poland and the following Eneco Tour, but as far as his home race was concerned the talk was of targeting the GC. Perhaps critically here, in addition to a strong supporting line up including Stannard, Eisel and Lopez, Shane Sutton was back in the fold after early season announcements that he would no longer play an active role in the Sky set up.

The first couple of stages held in typically wet British weather had been a sprinters party, despite an uphill finish on stage 2 in the Lake District. Milan San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek would have been reminded of the weather on the Italian coast earlier this year as he overhauled An Post’s Sam Bennett to win and take over the leaders gold jersey. Sky had kept Wiggins protected and near the front for these stages and there was a suggestion that he was in for the long haul when even he admitted that he “..would have climbed off” because of the conditions if he wasn’t motivated for the overall. Confirmation of this came the following day when Wiggins made several runs around the TT course at Knowsley. Tellingly rival Alex Dowsett, getting over a cold, chose to reconoittre the route from his team car. Dowsett was out of the starting hut before Wiggins, but any contest with his Sky rival was soon made academic as other riders went faster. Wiggins, the only rider to break 20 minutes for the test, was into the lead.

The following day brought the first of three stage wins for Mark Cavendish. Sunday’s misfire of the Omega Pharma sprint train was forgotten as the world tour teams began to impose themselves on the peloton. Another world tour squad were making their presence felt in the other competitions. Movistar’s Angel Madrasso was a permanent fixture in the breaks all week and thanks to an infringement on the final stage was able to claim both the KOM and sprinters prizes. For the smaller teams the pickings were pretty slim. The chance to feature in the break or a bunch sprint was the best that most could hope for. With talk of the ToB moving up to HC status in the future many of the British squads will feel disappointed that they didn’t come away with a better result. There would have been mixed feelings among the 3rd level teams at Simon Yates stage win on Dartmoor. The British U23 squad had appeared the previous year, but Yate’s win following both his and his twin brothers performances in the Tour de Avenir will have put both riders first in the queue for a contract with the world tour squads. The emphasis on shorter criterium style events seems to blunt the opportunity for some of the young riders in the British conti squads to shine.

Despite the bad weather earlier in the week, crowds at this years race if anything seemed even bigger than the year before. Certainly the final stage around central London had a last day of the Tour feel and Cavendish served up the perfect result, winning convincingly. Wiggins was lost in the bunch over the line, but maintained a comfortable lead at the finish. Both riders had demonstrated their respect for the race in interviews all week, Cavendish showing his pride at winning the final stage at his home race and Wiggins describing that there are “..no easy stages on the Tour of Britain” earlier in the week. Inevitably, talk is already turning to what will Wiggins do next. The rider is focused on the world championship time trial, what comes next will be interesting. A stated aim is to win another gold medal at the Olympics in 2016. That still leaves at least one season where, perhaps, Wiggins will target another race with ‘history’. Paris Roubaix perhaps?

We will be sharing our fans eye view of the penultimate stage from Epsom to Guildford shortly. Don’t forget to visit our Facebook page where you can bid for a T shirt signed by Tour of Britain legends including Tour de France 2013 stage winner Dan Martin! 

World Championships – Team Time Trial

Omega Pharma successfully defended the TTT title in Florence on Sunday. Sky, denuded of Wiggins due to the ToB still managed to take 3rd place reinforcing their reputation as one of the strongest TTT outfits. Runners up were winners of the TTT at this years Tour Orica Greenedge. The women’s TTT was also defended successfully with Specialized Lululemon taking the win.

No domestic broadcasters are taking the live pictures from the event, so you will need to check out UCI TV for live streaming.

More teams to fold 

In addition to the loss of Vacansoleil it was rumoured over the weekend that second tier French outfit Sojasun would also be folding due to a lack of sponsorship for 2014. VCSE had reported the apparent saving of Euskatel by Fernando Alonso a couple of weeks back, but both parties have officially announced that they were unable to reach agreement on the structure of the team for 2014. Alonso has vowed to build a team from scratch which suggests that he still intends to pursue a world tour licence. However, he is suggesting that this team will not appear until 2015 at the earliest so there will be a lot more Spanish and French riders looking for rides next year. Expect to see a lot of animation from these riders at the worlds and at the Giro di Lombardia as they look to catch the eye of a prospective employer.

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

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

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

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

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

And here’s the GCN view

Polar Express – VCSE’s view on the Spring Classics #2

Following a weekend away VCSE was looking forward to catching up with the first of the seasons key classic races; Milan San Remo. After the aborted attempt to view our recording of Kuurne Brussels Kuurne only to find that it had been cancelled due to snow the first few minutes of MSR felt like deja vu.

As Eurosport began their live feed on Sunday the race was currently stopped as the teams bussed the riders around the snow bound Turchino climb. In between episodes of some kind of sporting ‘You’ve been framed’ we were treated to the sight of the conditions on the climb through the sweeps of the wipers on the producers car.

Bypassing the snow if not persistant heavy rain and low temperatures the organisers prepared to re start the race with around 130km to go, allowing the six man breakaway to restore their 7 minute advantage before releasing the peloton. For the first hour or so the coverage was definitely for die hards as the feed from the motorbike cameras degraded into an acid trip or simply ‘froze’ whenever they were risked to be shown. Race radio was equally patchy in giving accurate information; suggesting at one point that Sylvain Chavanel had abandoned which was ironic when he appeared in the group contesting the win in the final stages.

There were some notable retirements (read did not want to get off the bus at the restart) including Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra from Omega Pharma. When Chavanel’s ‘retirement’ was announced Mark Cavendish’s prediction that he would not figure in the race seemed prescient, albeit not for the reasons he gave beforehand.

The reduction in race distance may have pointed the outcome towards the sprinters but the conditions made predicting the likely winner a lottery. As the Cipressa climb approached the breakaway was caught and the cameras seemed to have dried out enough for the ‘real’ race to start.

Gerald Ciolek

Surprise Surprise – Ciolek in OPQS days

The two big stories? Gerald Ciolek winning would be a good place to start. Ciolek riding for neo pro conti team MTN-Qhubeka would have been among the outside bets even after the restart. MTN’s presence in the early season races has been universally welcomed as the first pro team from Africa but the coverage on Sunday had initially focused on some poorly handled wheel changes. 

Ciolek timed his ride perfectly admitting that his tactics had been to ensure that he stayed in touch with the leaders over the final Poggio climb. Of the final bunch the descending the climb and heading towards the finish line Ciolek was arguably the only out and out sprinter present. However with the likes of Cancellara, Sagan in the group he still wouldn’t have been favourite.

You had to feel for Ian Stannard as the riders crossed the line in sixth place. Stannard was the man for all but the last few hundred metres. When the peloton had caught the break after another monster turn by Vasil Kiryenka Team Sky would have been looking to deliver Geraint Thomas or Edvald Boasson Hagen to the line. The Sky machines grand plan unravelled when Thomas appeared to slip on a white line taking out Tyler Farrar in the process. Boasson Hagen was dropped on the Cipressa but by now all eyes were on Stannard who had broken away with Chavanel on the Poggio.

Stannard will be a leader in some of the forthcoming Belgian classics and possibly Paris Roubaix also but he isn’t known for his sprinting prowess. He had the bit between his teeth on Sunday and deserves a Chapeau! for continually attacking, burning matches furiously and leading onto the finishing straight.

Peter Sagan may feel disappointed that he allowed Ciolek to get the drop on him at the line but he could be forgiven for having one eye on Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara himself said that he was happy with third in the conditions as ‘to arrive.. was victory in itself’.

For the Qhubeka team and Ciolek winning Milan San Remo was ‘incredible’ and announces them on the world stage in the best way possible. This was a fairytale result and it will be interesting to see whether the win spurs them on to bigger things. It’s hard to see that Ciolek would have won in ‘normal’ conditions and his victory came from his own tactical positioning rather than how the the team had worked for him.

There’s every chance that Stannard will kick on from this. His ride added up to so much more than his final placing. Sky have talked up how they intend to feature in the classics this season. Previously they have been criticised for not adapting to racing incidents, but Sunday indicated that they have learnt some new tricks.

As we head to Belgium this weekend things are shaping up nicely.

The unluckiest man in cycling?

Ben_swift

Unlucky? – Ben Swift

Picture from http://www.britishcycling.org.uk

Ben Swift tumbled out of the Trofeo Alcudia yesterday descending the Coll d’Honor. Swift had a decent showing with consecutive top 10 finishes in the Challenge Mallorca to date and to crash out on the last day seems typical of his luck in the last 12 months.

Swift was Sky’s go to sprinter at last years Vuelta a Espana and while the team were primarily focused on Chris Froome for the GC there was a lead out of sorts for Swift including Ian Stannard.

While Swift often appeared well placed in the run up to the red kite he often appeared to have go too early, particularly when teammates had ridden hard to get him into a decent position. This was probably as frustrating for him as there were other stages where he was simply outgunned by the other teams, notably Argos Shimano.

John Degenkolb who vies with Marcel Kittell as top sprinter for Argos was the sprint story of the Vuelta with five wins. Certainly Degenkolb made it look easy dominating the early flat stages and taking the final stage win around the streets of Madrid. Swift’s best result was 2nd on stage 18.

Arguably Sky’s front line sprinter now that Mark Cavendish has gone to Omerga Pharma it will be interesting to see what races Swift is entered into this year. It’s hard to imagine that Sky will have much interest in the sprints on any of the grand tours with the possible exception of the Vuelta. The teams emphasis is very much on the Giro and the Tour with a ramped up effort being made for the spring classics also.

Swift obtained the points jersey at last years Tour of Poland along with two stage wins. The result illustrated his strength against the world tour teams second string outfits but it remains to be seen if he has the firepower and Sky the motivation to win in the biggest events.