I had planned to write a short(ish) post ahead of the second full week of this year’s Tour on the speculation (confirmed by the rider himself yesterday) that Richie Porte would leave Team Sky at the end of the season. Ivan Basso opening the Tinkoff press conference with the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer pushed possible Porte moves off the metaphorical VCSE ‘front page’.
Getting the Basso announcement more or less hot off the press on my timeline I was disconcerted by my own (initial) reluctance to ‘say’ something on my own feeds. My immediate reaction, born out of my closest family having suffered was empathetic. No one deserves to suffer with this disease. Then I started to wonder. Basso is a rider with a ‘past’, part of the generation of pro cyclists that ‘competed’ when the doping arms race was at it’s height. How long would it be before people started to join the dots between today’s news; Basso; cancer and Lance. Having seen the very dignified way that he handled the press conference I’m glad that I didn’t think for too long about putting out my own (very small) message of support for Ivan Basso.
The dots have been joined however. It’s perhaps only been 5% of the commentary, but it’s out there. If Lance’s cancer was caused by doping then could the same be true for Basso? The aptly named ‘Tin Foil Hat’ brigade thought that this was the story today. There has been a LOT written about Lance, his cancer and his doping. There has been a lot written about whether or not the former was brought about by the latter. I don’t think I have actually read anything conclusive in the many iterations of the Lance Armstrong morality tales that litter my bookshelf.
I am something of a contrarian about doping. As much as I support a ban for anyone caught using PED’s I would equally advocate that it’s possible for a rider to return to the sport following said ban. I am more exercised by the misuse of TUE’s (an ongoing issue in the peloton) that I am about a confessed (and one hopes ex) doper riding and racing. Ivan Basso might represent the worst of pro cycling as someone who doped but there is (for me at least) much to be said for his subsequent repentance. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have been given the chance of a couple more years ‘in the sun’ with Tinkoff. Today’s news may bring about retirement sooner than expected but I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Ivan Basso on his bike.
Mark Cavendish doesn’t have a lot of time for armchair cycling commentators and even assuming that the Etixx Quick Step sprinter had stumbled upon this I don’t think it was just me that Cav was trying to prove a point to in Dubai at the start of this month. Cavendish took two stage wins and the overall GC in what was always likely to be another sprint fest on the Arabian Peninsula. Of course the win here won’t (read hasn’t) silenced the speculation over whether or not he can reclaim the throne from Marcel Kittel or, perhaps more importantly, earn another lucrative contract with his team. Even Patrick Lefevere is suggesting that Cavendish needs results if he wants to be re-signed by the erstwhile OPQS squad. Of course Kittel was absent from Dubai this year, so all bets are currently off over who has come into the season in better form, the key showdown likely to come at the Tour. However Lefevere indicated that Cavendish needed to perform in the early season races like this weekend’s Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and the first monument of 2015; Milan San Remo. The Belgian squad can’t change its spots as far as wins in the classics being the priority despite the investment in GC riders like Uran and emergence of Kwiatowski (admittedly no slouch in the one day races either). The impression I get is that a repeat of Cavendish’s 2009 MSR victory will be enough to ensure his continued employment with the potential size of his contract dictated by continuing that form into the summer.
One of the riders that Cavendish will need to beat in MSR is Kittel’s teammate John Degenkolb. The Giant sprinter was the main threat to Cavendish on GC in Dubai and while the Manxman impressed with his 17th place on the one stage that offered an opportunity for the climbers, Degenkolb showed his versatility by scaling the steep sides of the Hatta Dam faster than Alejandro Valverde to take victory and briefly hold the overall lead. Giant have an abundance of sprinters, but it’s to their advantage that each of them bring something different to the party. Degenkolb can do the out and out bunch sprinter thing, even if he isn’t quite at the level of Kittel or Cavendish for outright speed. He’s emerging as a rider who is potentially more valuable in terms of world tour points however as he will be in the mix on (more than just) a pan flat sprinters stage and he can figure in one day races too. Even last year with his podium in Paris Roubaix and remaining at the sharp end on the Ronde until the last few km’s showed that Degenkolb could prove to be the more intriguing Giant sprinter to watch in 2015.
The other take out for me in Dubai was Elia Viviani taking stage 2 and his first win in Sky colours. I think Viviani will be a great signing for Sky as they haven’t had a pure speed guy since Cavendish left. Of course it’s possible that Viviani will end up feeling just as frustrated as Cavendish if he’s selected for the Tour as Sky will be entirely focused on getting Chris Froome back into the yellow jersey, but if instead the Italian is picked for the Giro I expect he will claim wins. Sky also had Ben Swift in Dubai, but he’s morphed into a Degenkolb style rider and will be hoping to improve upon his third place at last years MSR. Most of the column inches will be given over to Bradley Wiggins tilt at Paris Roubaix this season and as much I would like to see Wiggins feature there I’m hoping that Swift is able to build on his return to form last year and get a big win in 2015.
It was a shame that we didn’t get to see any of the action from the Tour of Oman this year. Since I started the blog I have enjoyed getting an early look at the grand tour contenders in what is the only one of the desert races that isn’t all flat stick racing. It’s often a good guide to form for the summer too, although Froome’s repeat win in 2014 ultimately didn’t guarantee a repeat in the Tour. Whether or not it was to do with the TV coverage this year (or lack of) the big names were absent from this years edition with Valverde and Tejay Van Garderen the pre-race favourites. Vincenzo Nibali was in Oman (and Dubai) but his presence has been decidedly low key and at this point his form is as much of a closed book as it was ahead of last years Tour.
The eventual winner was Lampre’s Rafael Valls (no, me neither). Valls won the key stage with the summit finish on the Green Mountain from Van Garderen and this was enough to ensure the overall. From the VCSE sofa Valls looks like one of those riders who could be (infamously) described as ‘coming from nowhere’. He’s been with Lampre since Vacansoleil folded at the end of 2013 and this win is by far his biggest to date. Lampre, who didn’t exactly see much of a return on investment from Chris Horner last season and have finally parted company with perennial under achiever Damiano Cunego no doubt will wish Valls’ victory heralds the dawn of something big. If he does build on the result this could mean big things for Spanish cycling too as Alberto Contador is discussing retirement and Valverde isn’t getting any younger.
It’s hard to say why there wasn’t at least a daily highlights package from Oman this year. Of the three desert races Dubai, the upstart, has by far and way the best coverage in so much as you can watch it live. The Tour of Oman is an ASO supported race and no less than Eddy Merckx is on hand to glad hand the press and yet it has been possible only to follow ‘live’ on social media in 2015. Oman doesn’t have the riches of Dubai (or Qatar) but surely it’s the quality of the racing that should take precedent as far as coverage is concerned? Oman’s demotion in the TV stakes is a bit of an uncomfortable example of what happens in a sport where there is (comparatively) little money around. If the future of the early season racing (at least as far as TV is concerned) is that armchair fans can only see the ‘action’ in Dubai because that’s where the money flows it will be a change for the worse.
The Giro d’Italia starts next weekend with the an opening stage that loops around Naples and should see a sprinter donning the Maglia Rosa leaders jersey. Unusually for a grand tour although perhaps aping the 100th Tour de France this years Giro is an (almost) all Italian affair starting in Italy and taking in eight uphill finishes before reaching its climax in Brescia on 26th May.
There are the normal jerseys on offer in addition the GC but the Red points jersey differs to the green from the Tour in that it tends to favour the climbers over the sprinters. Nevertheless Mark Cavendish was unlucky to lose out last year to GC runner-up Jaoquim Rodriguez by a single digit points difference. Cavendish as a transplanted Manxman now living in Tuscany is targeting stages this year but the combination of the Giro scoring and his desire to win the green jersey again at this years Tour will probably see him climb off before the end of the race.
As it’s a grand tour the main event will be the GC battle. Bradley Wiggins stated goal this year is the Giro but his form in the races he has entered so far this season haven’t done much to indicate that he should be considered as a contender for any reason other than his 2012 Tour victory. In his last appearance at the Giro d’Trentino last week Wiggins looked in touch rather than imperious, although a mechanical robbed us of the chance to see if he could overcome chief rival Vincenzo Nibali. Nibabli in comparison looks in super shape and so far at least has been tactically on the money last week and perhaps more importantly at Tirreno Adriatico. Leaving aside the positioning of that race in the calendar, Tirreno arguably saw Nibali and Astana come up against a stronger line up from Sky and at the critical moment Nibali was able to kick on and win. It’s an aside, but in the one day races Nibali has entered this season he has looked strong also. In the likely marquee match up between Wiggins and Nibali it’s hard to see past Nibali at this point.
The $64,000 dollar question is whether or not Sky’s celebrated marginal gains methodology, much celebrated last year, has a surprise in store when the Giro enters the mountains in the second and third weeks. A lot was made of Sky’s approach to use races as part of the preparation for last years Tour but the results Wiggins gained made it abundantly clear that he was a strong favourite. If Sky have taken the same approach this year, the results suggest that Wiggins is an outside bet at best.
On the GC under card there’s defending champ Ryder Hesjedal, the man on top of Dan Martin’s Christmas card list after he buried himself to help the Irishman win Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday. Hejesdal has had a fairly low profile build up to his defence, mainly riding in support of other riders but insiders suggest that he looks in good shape and he has looked strong in the Ardennes. Whether he can sustain this over a three week stage race remains to be seen but having won the GC as an outsider last year Hesjedal could surprise us again.
Rodriguez should be in the mix as well, as he showed during Ardennes week, but who are the other GC contenders. It’s interesting to see Cadel Evans riding the Giro and Tour. Evans revealed some time ago that he was unwell during his Tour defence last year and he didn’t look strong at Trentino last week. A top 10 finish seems most likely. Another rider seeking a last hurrah is Ivan Basso. Basso hasn’t shown his hand much this year and it remains to be seen if he is holding much more than a low pair. With Nibali gone to Astana, Basso is Cannodale’s main GC contender although it’s questionable if his 36 year old legs will justify the support.
One dimension of the Giro, if not all of the forthcoming grand tours, is the need for some of the teams on the pro tour to get a good result. Euskatel with Sammy Sanchez and Blanco with Robert Gesink are cash strapped and without a sponsor respectively so we can expect them to go for glory on the marquee stages.
And out of those stages VCSE recommends the tuning in or Sky+’ing to these beauties:
Stage 8 (Sat 11th May)
55km Individual Time Trial. Can be a bit dull to watch live, but this will be Wiggin’s opportunity to make time on the GC
Stage 10 (Tues 14th May)
The first summit finish
Stage 15 (Sun 19th May)
The race heads into the French Alps taking in the Telegraph and finishing on the Galibier
Stage 19 (Fri 24th May)
Over the Stelvio and the Gavia passes
VCSE will be sharing our views on how the Giro is shaping up via our Racing Digest feature. We will also look to feature the best video content with race highlights and insight on our YouTube channel with a dedicated playlist for all things Giro related.
Recommended links for all things Giro related are below (the video clip) including the normal comprehensive insight from The Inrng and Steephill TV. There’s also a great clip from GCN with their thoughts ahead of the race.