Swiss Timing

Matthias Brandle extended the hour record broken by Jens Voigt last Thursday. The venue, another velodrome in Switzerland and a few hundred metres added to the recently retired Voigt’s distance by a rider old (or should that be young?) enough to be his offspring.

Does a question arise that each (successful) attempt took place in different locations? The hour itself is obviously inviolable but would the variations in track length, degree of banking and ambient temperature between velodromes play a part in determining the outcome? As opinined in the previous post Voigt’s record now surpassed will probably stand the test of time over Brandle by dint of being the ‘first’, albeit under the ‘new’ rules. Brandle had gained some notoriety and much mispronunciation of his name at this year’s Tour of Britain with his Voigt-esque breakaways, but in comparison he is something of a footnote in comparison. Of course Brandle may yet prove to be a long serving record holder, but this seems unlikely with more storied names waiting in the wings and able to observe the apparent ease with which the record has been taken.

An interesting side bar to Brandle was a minor spat that developed on social media when it was suggested that maybe it was time that there was an attempt made by a woman. Composing this post without any recourse to the twin gods of Google and Wikipedia, VCSE pleads ignorance of who currently holds this particular title (Jeannie Longo?). It’s hard to imagine Marianne Vos not wanting to have a stab at it at some point. The storm in this particular tea cup stemmed from the suggestion emanating from the UCI. The complaint from some quarters was that with the shoestring budgets that most women’s pro teams operate under, it would unlikely that many female riders could generate the budget to make an attempt.

With the erstwhile Specialized Lululemon squad looking to raise a crowdfunded 2015 budget of $750k it highlights the gulf between the top male and female teams. Oleg Tinkoff has offered €250k bounties to the top GC boys for riding all 3 grand tours, an amount that could easily fund a professional womens team. The UCI has done more under Brian Cookson to promote women’s cycling with the introduction of two showcase events in 2014 and more to come with 3 days of racing alongside the men at next years Tour of California. Obviously there’s lots more to be done, but it’s sad to hear that the only UK published women’s cycling magazine is having to close only nine months after launching. Looking through the hour record lens maybe what’s needed is a female Grahame Obree with an idea and a surfeit of washing machine parts.

Here comes the new Jens, same as the old Jens* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #37

Quite a few weeks since the last post wrapping up the Vuelta. It’s not as if there hasn’t been much going on, what with Wiggo’s worlds, the final monument of the season and the final (in the literal sense) Tour of Beijing. There’s a literal and figurative wind down to the racing season in September, certainly post the world championships and that’s true of the ‘site too. Reflecting on the 2014 season it does feel like a bit of an anti climax after the Vuelta. Every grand tour this year has had something to hold the interest and each race delivered a winner worthy of a grand tour victory. The races that followed have all seemed a little bit dull in comparison.

VCSE was taken to task by no less than Rouleur when we ventured the opinion that the womens world championship race wasn’t the most exciting one ever. That might have been tinged with disappointment for Lizzie Armitsead losing a race that looked like hers to win, but from VCSE’s armchair at least the Commenwealth women’s road race had a lot more going for it in comparison. So all in all, everything has felt a little jaded and now that planning a ride has started to involve thinking about rain jackets and lights things blog wise may also go into wind down mode also. There may yet be some kind of end of season review and of course it’s always possible that a story will develop over the off season that provokes a paragraph or two. One of the plans at this point last year was to write about the stay in France around the first couple of weeks of the Tour. That post failed to materialise, but may yet see the light of day in a comparison piece with the time recently spent cycling in Spain. There’s also some long overdue product reviews and following the collapse of our T shirt provider last year, the VCSE apparell brand may yet return. In the meantime, some thoughts on Jens, Brad, Dan and the this years top cycling nation..

Jen’s Voigt is the new ‘new’ hour record holder

In and around the post Vuelta season wind down was the first of a supposed series of attempts at breaking the hour record. Newly retired Jens Voigt had been quietly preparing for his tilt at ‘the hour’ and was finding the time to fit it in before a pre-planned charity ride in the UK that was scheduled to take place just 48 hours later. Here was a rider who if he didn’t appear to have the cerebral qualities a record attempt required, would definitely have the heart for the job. There were large dollops of goodwill to accompany him as well, after all Voigt is a rider famed more for his attacking style, rather than the smoothness that is typical of the strongest testers in the peloton like (Tony) Martin and co (although Voigt is a previous GP des Nations winner).

Jens - what else is there to say?
Jens – what else is there to say?

This was going to be the first go at the hour record since the UCI had clarified (if not outright changed) the rules governing the event earlier this year. Prototype bike designs and equally prototype riding positions were long since banned, but the new ruling went further and created a groundswell of possible record attempts not least because riders would be on something that was recognisably bike shaped. Voigt didn’t appear to be riding a TT machine that differed too much from the kind of thing he would have been riding at the Tour in July this year, save for the now obligatory Jensie custom paint job.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that he made it all look rather easy. This was a seat of the skinsuit, will he, won’t he record. From the gun if anything Voigt might have been going a bit too quickly to sustain a record breaking pace. From a few laps in though it was all rather relaxed, metronomic lap times that barely varied and put him on track to not just squeeze over the line with seconds to spare, but exceed 50km for the hour quite easily. Post the record, talk inevitably turned to the sort of distance that we could expect from a Wiggins or Martin. If Voigt could make 51km look relatively easy, surely one of the favourites could go further. Is 60km possible?

For Voigt his record may well be short lived. Martin may feel the need to fill the rainbow striped gap in his wardrobe with the cloak of a raised record during the off season. Wiggins may add it to his list of targets ahead of the 2016 Olympics. This probably won’t matter to Voigt that much. He has enjoyed quite a valedictory year and the hour is the cherry on the cake. Say, he had managed to stay away during his solo break during the US Pro Challenge. Would anyone bar the hardest of hard core fans have remembered a stage win there in five years time compared to Jens Voigt’s place as the first of latest generation of hour record breakers?

Wiggins wins world title

Another rider falling into the category of someone you want to see do well, even if you’re not sure they will was Bradley Wiggins in the TT world championship. With only a prologue sized stage in the Tour of Britain to point to as a guide to form Wiggins faced off against Tony Martin for the individual TT. It’s certainly the case that Wiggins has looked better this year, with the rider admitting at various times that he felt he was in at least as good condition as his Olympic and Tour winning year of 2012. With the exception of his non-selection for this years Tour, Wiggins has approached pretty much every event that he wanted to enter in the mood to win and by winning his first ever road based world championship Wiggins would,  if only be accident be Sky’s biggest success story in a year the team would probably rather forget. Wiggins felt the course favoured him and Martin was coming off two grand tours, but you only had to look at the German’s body language on the podium to work out that this wasn’t just an off day for the rider who had taken the title four times previously.

Continue reading Here comes the new Jens, same as the old Jens* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #37

Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 review (plus a bit of Tour of Britain if you get that far..)

Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 

American Football has been described as ‘a game of inches’ such is the fine margin between victory and defeat. This years Vuelta may yet be decided on the seconds that have ebbed and flowed from Alberto Contador’s lead during the second week of the race. Contador took over the leaders jersey from the somewhat battered Nairo Quintana following the stage 10 individual time trial. Quintana, who lost enough time to fall out of the top ten altogether, crashed heavily enough to wreck his bike and reinforced the theory that 2014 is not a good year to be a race favourite in a grand tour. The Movistar rider was gone the following day (with echoes of Chris Froome’s depatrure from the Tour) following a in peloton accident early in the stage that added broken bones to the broken bike Quintana had suffered the day before. For a rider who only seems to have one facial expression to call on, Quintana showed emotion as it became clear he would need to abandon, although it was incongruous that he appeared to be grinning maniacally at the time.

Right rider, wrong jersey - Can Contador keep Red?
Right rider, wrong jersey – Can Contador keep Red?

So Contador took the lead and the questions now surrounded his form and fitness following his ill fated Tour. The suggestion that he had been sandbagging about his chances in the Vuelta, perhaps even returning earlier that reported to riding are superfluous as long as he is able to hold on to the race lead. The difficulty for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader is more so that he has not been able to make the most of the opportunities to put time into his key (remaining) rivals; Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and the aforementioned Froome. On more than one occasion during the last week Contador has attacked but he hasn’t been able to sustain long enough to break anyone. Is this a question of his fitness? Perhaps, but you can’t help feeling that Contador is lacking in the team stakes here. In particular, VCSE thinks that Contador would not be quite so isolated at the death of each stage if Mick Rogers or Nico Roche were around. Rogers, of course, has already got two grand tours under his belt this year and the Sky bound Roche is at the Tour of Britain. Compare and contrast the Tinkoff squad with Movistar, Sky or Katusha and it’s clear that Contador’s rivals have at least one or two trusted lieutenants (if not genuine contenders) in their line ups.

Writing this ahead of today’s stage (16) it feels like a disaster would have to befall Contador for him to lose the lead ahead of the final rest day, but the fact remains that his lead is a narrow one with three riders all capable of winning within two minutes of his jersey. Chris Froome has struggled at times, most obviously in the TT where he is one of the few GC riders who can genuinely put pressure on Tony Martin. The typically dizzying ramps of the Vuelta have upset him as he is not able to maintain the steady cadence that forms that basis of how Sky (still) ride most of the time. Froome has shown real determination though and every time he has looked dead and buried he’s managed to get back to and sometimes even in front of Contador. If he can remain within striking distance of Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez after today’s stage he’s got to be good for the podium, if not challenging for the win that Sky need so desperately to salvage their season. Rodriguez has been a bit of surprise package in week two and shares the same time as Froome on GC. He hasn’t looked like the best of the four at any time though and it’s hard to see him standing on the top step next weekend. Valverde has to be the main threat to Contador, in second place currently and less than a minute behind. There’s been much talk of Valverde needing to take a pay cut next season due to budget restrictions at Movistar. If he could take the Vuelta it would strengthen his hand considerably and in Quintana’s absence he has (and more importantly his teammates) the motivation to go for the win. The risk for the Spanish triumvirate is that game playing of the sort they indulged in yesterdays stage to Lagos de Covadonga will allow Froome to sneak through and take the prize from them. Sky looked at the formidable best when the delivered Froome to the foot of the climb on stage 14 and they need to be able to do this again in the final week if he’s really going to be in with a chance of victory.

What we haven’t seen much of yet is the GC guys going outright for stage wins (unlike Quintana at the Giro and Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour). Nibali’s Astana teammate and 2014 Giro revelation Fabio Aru has already claimed one stage win, That along with a likely top ten (if not top five) placing is probably already job done for the Italian. Lampre have some consolation that they have been unable to defend Chris Horner’s title from last year with a second stage win. It’s an indication that Horner would at least have had strong support, even if the idea of repeating his 2013 success seemed as unlikely as last years win was at the same stage a year ago.

Dan Martin survived an off road excursion yesterday to maintain his solid top ten performance. After his Giro debacle and missing the Tour, the Vuelta is the Garmin riders opportunity to salvage his season and potentially restablish himself as a GC contender in the eyes of team boss Jonathan Vaughters. Martin has gone for the win on a couple of stages and while these attacks haven’t delivered the result consistent high stage placings translate to (currently) 7th on GC, that could have been higher save for yesterdays crash. Garmin do have a stage win to their name though, thanks to a determined ride from Ryder Hesjedal on stage 14. Hesjedal crawled over ramps that the he had no business doing so and as the road finally began to level off overhauled his final breakaway companion to take the win.

With Nacer Bouhanni’s exit, John Degenkolb should be a shoe in for the points jersey. He’s still two short of his tally of five race wins in the 2012 Vuelta but Michael Matthews may yet spring a surprise. Both riders are better equipped than most sprinters to get over the climbs and it may come down to who is less fatigued next Sunday.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 review (plus a bit of Tour of Britain if you get that far..)

Heavy climbs and picture break up – VCSE’s Racing Digest #36

Vuelta a Espana week 1 Review 

There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into  a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.

Alejandro Valverde – Hinault to Quintana’s Lemond?

Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”

Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its  3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.

Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.

The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.

VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.

What’s up with this picture?

Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised)  and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.

Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently  denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.

It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.

Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Commonwealth Games cycling

The 20th Commonwealth Games was bookended by its track and road cycling events. With a different mix of events included in comparison to the Olympics there wasn’t quite the same slew of medals seen at London 2012, but that also had a lot to do with the current state of GB track cycling. London was the last hurrah for the riders who had carried the success of the track programme on the shoulders since the beginning of the last decade. Sir Chris Hoy who would see the track events take place in his eponymously named velodrome had originally planned to retire at the games. Victoria Pendleton retired immediately after the London games and was a media presence at the games this time while her sometime nemesis Anna Meares continues to dominate the women’s sprint.

Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games - The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome
Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games – The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome

Part of the decline in British track cycling’s fortunes since London are put down to the four year Olympic cycle that sees the principal riders of the track team peak in line with that event. In other words; forget about the results now and look forward to Rio. So far the fall off in results doesn’t appear to be having an impact on the popularity of the event. Track meets featuring the medal winners from London like Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell are assured to be a sell out, even if the crowd don’t always get the result they want. The cheers for the household names are always the loudest, irrespective of the outcome in their particular event.

The decline has been most keenly felt in the men’s sprint. Hoy had been replaced by the younger Kenny in London, but since he took the Olympic gold his results have been patchy. Physically smaller than Hoy, Kenny wins his races with bike handling and guile more so than outright power, but he’s often struggled to make the final in meets in the last year. He took Silver in Glasgow, losing here to the New Zealand rider Sam Webster. One half of track cycling’s ‘golden couple’ Kenny’s girlfriend Laura Trott took her own Commonwealth gold in the points race, narrowly beating Elinor Barker. In contrast to the emotions shown by some of the home nations medal winners across the Glasgow games Trott had been embroiled in a bit of a social media spat ahead of the games by appearing to downplay the status of the event in comparison to the Olympics. Trott failed to say she had been outright misquoted in the Daily Mail interview, but she didn’t have quite the same profile at these games and seemed happy enough when she thought she had missed out on the winners medal in the immediate aftermath of the points race.

The women’s team pursuit where Trott had won the first of her Olympic golds with teammates Roswell and Dani King was missing in Glasgow. The dominant rider of the trio, Rowsell took the individual gold in a display that cements why she’s the current world champion in the event also.

One of the successful elements of the track programme (the whole games in fact) was the integration of the paralympic events within the schedule. Scotland’s Craig MacLean took two golds with Neil Fachie in the tandem events after returning to the track. MacLean had been one the very early successes of the GB track programme and his return makes you wonder of Hoy could do something similar in Rio. The likelihood is not, but there’s surely some merit in the MacLean model allowing further integration of paralympic sport as well as the prospect of raisin para sports profile yet further. It’s hard to mention MacLean as a rider returning in search of former glories without mentioning Bradley Wiggins having another tilt on the track. Wiggins returned to anchor the men’s team pursuit squad. Working with the team for barely a week before the games Wiggins seemed happy with a silver medal. As with the sprint the benchmark for success is gold in Rio in two years time. Wiggins is also extremely realistic about what can be achieved, he was similarly sanguine about his silver medal in last years world championship time trial defeat to Tony Martin.

Wiggins missed the individual time trial and road race in Glasgow and offered some thinly veiled thoughts on his road racing future in a wide ranging interview the day after the team pursuit. Describing the road scene as “..very political” he confirmed that he no longer expected to lead a team in a grand tour. Out of contract with Sky at the end of this season this admission would appear to limit where Wiggins could go next year, if indeed he does continue to race on the road. He’s been announced as a late call up to Sunday’s Ride London event, an indicator of the fact the Wiggins is box office as far as race organisers (if not Sky) are concerned. With Mark Cavendish choosing to pull out of the race as he continues to recover from his injury sustained at this years Tour it’s possible that Cavendish’s appearance money has been redirected in Wiggins direction.

Back to Wiggins plans for next year, the choice seems to be remaining with Sky on the basis that they will be more likely to accommodate his track plans or to do a (likely) very lucrative one year programme with another team who will bank on his marketability. This could open up any number of teams. With Jens Voigt retiring Trek might see the benefit of providing Wiggins with a birth to defend his Tour of California title and he could be a useful counterpoint to Fabian Cancellara in the classics. VCSE has mentioned BMC in the past, but that seems as unlikely as a move to Orica Greenedge who definitely wouldn’t be supportive of Wiggins building up to the track in Rio where Australia will also be targeting medals. Garmin, or whoever Garmin become next season when they hook up with Cannondale as a bike supplier might still be an option but as things stand it’s entirely possible that Wiggins will stay with Sky or even walk away from road cycling altogether. Wiggins retains the capacity to surprise us and whatever he ends up doing it may well be something that no one predicted!

Continue reading Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Tour de France 2014 Grand Depart

Stages 1 & 2 – Leeds to Harrogate & York to Sheffield

Long before their son Marcel was a glint in Herr and Frau Kittel’s eye another German from different time said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. If the script (if not the plan) had been followed yesterday we would have seen Mark Cavendish claim his first ever maillot jaune on the finishing straight in Harrogate on stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France. Instead his Omega Pharma Quick Step team are trying to come up with a plan B for the riders left in their squad after Cavendish withdrew from the race ahead of today’s stage as a result of the injury he suffered in the final moments of yesterdays sprint.

Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 - TdF 2014
Contador, Cavendish & Froome ahead of stage 1 – TdF 2014

Everything had been going so well up until then. If there was one thing that couldn’t be guaranteed for the second grand tour opening weekend to take place in the British Isles in 2014 it would be the weather. There was much at stake to show that Yorkshire was going to prove to be the right choice for the opening stages of this years race. The greatest risk came from the possibility that the dales and moorland that much of the race would be run over during the weekend could be shrouded in mist and rain if we were ‘enjoying’ typical British weather conditions. This years Giro d’Italia ‘Big Start’ in Ireland was beset with wet conditions pretty much from start to finish and while this didn’t dampen the enthusiasm it did impact on the spectacle. It was extremely fortunate that any rain that was forecast had pretty much disappeared by the time stage 1 got underway yesterday.

The crowds that gathered ahead of the start in Leeds for the signing on ceremony where the shape of things to come and both stages have been characterised by huge crowds wherever there was a climb, town or village for the Peloton to pass through or over. And these weren’t just crowds or two, three or even four deep at the roadside. Any vantage point or bank that afforded a view over the heads at the side of the route was packed out with fans. Sure, many of them would have been asking their neighbour “Where’s Wiggo?” but that wasn’t the point, Yorkshire had turned out for their very own version of a grand day out. The waves of people that crowded onto the parts of the stage that went up, particularly the few categorised climbs were incredible, an almost perfect copy of an Alpe d’Huez or Angliru but with a British twist. There were few of the fancy dress runners sprinting alongside the riders yesterday, the way through the crowd was narrow but not bad tempered as it had been in the Giro earlier in the year.

If the Yorkshire Grand Depart is going to be judged a success for one reason it should be for the sheer number of people who felt engaged to come and stand by the road and watch the race go by. Will it encourage more cyclists? Will it inspire a young boy or girl to become a racer? Who knows. What is clear is that there’s an appetite to watch road racing on British roads at the highest level and if it makes it easier to stage races on closed roads in the UK that can only be a good thing.

As far as the actual racing goes, yesterdays stage might have seemed a little dull if it had been held during the middle of the race in a dull French department. The three man break that went off the front pretty much from the get go yesterday contained the oldest man in the race Jens Voigt. As far as breakaways go Jens is the perfect rider and in this situation he was a gift for the commentators as they can get maximum mileage out his catchphrase, career longevity and the fact this is his retirement year. It might have been a harder race to call if the other two riders in the break, two Frenchman who’s names escape me, had made it stick and Jens had slipped back into the clutches of the peloton. As it went the Trek rider stayed away long enough to claim the KOM jersey as well as the most aggressive rider award.

There was almost another surprise in store from Trek as the peloton tackled the final drag uphill in Harrogate. Fabian Cancellara broke away on the right hand side of the road as OPQS led the bunch on the left. If Cavendish’s team had thought they could impose some discipline on the opposition in the final kilometres, Cancellara’s attack that was followed quickly by one from Cofidis exposed them. By now Kittel’s Giant Shimano train was moving their rider to the front and Cavendish was losing momentum as the sprinters got tangled with some of the one day specialists like Orica’s Simon Gerrans and Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. As Cavendish tried to get onto a wheel he butted heads with Gerrans. Gerrans moved left but was blocked by Europcar sprinter Bryan Coquard who sent Gerrans back into Cavendish’s path. In a moment both riders were down, Cavendish heavily and the perfect start that most of the fans had wanted was denied.

The heart would have wanted a Cavendish win. Christian Prudhomme probably wished for one too; he’s given him two bites at this particular cherry now. The head said Kittel though* and it seems likely that he would have claimed a second opening day win and another over Cavendish even without the accident. The 2014 Tour had got off to a fairytale start but it had, for one rider anyway, had a nightmare finish.

Mark Cavendish never looked likely to start stage 2 and despite the combined cross fingers of the OPQS squad he announced his withdrawal from the Tour, further depleting the already meagre British rider pool at this years race. The stage promised much, seven categorised climbs including one with just 5km to go as the race came through the back streets of Sheffield.

There was a bigger break today and one or two might have fancied their chances of staying away, but in the end the catch was made and we began to anticipate a Peter Sagan victory. The preceding climbs along with some ill timed mechanicals had taken their toll and there were one or two riders who lost time on the day, Richie Porte’s miserable 2014 continued as he fell behind after a crash. But it was the final climb up the Jenkin Road in Sheffield where the stage came alive. The GC contenders had decided that the best place to be was at the head of the race and Alberto Contador was the first to show his wheel at the head of the bunch. If Chris Froome spends his time looking at his stem, Contador only has eyes for Froome and he may come to regret climbing with his head twisted around to look at the Sky rider. Froome looked in trouble on Jenkin Road, not anything serious but another example of how he can suffer on a double digit gradient.

As the ‘summit’ was reached Froome steadied and attacked. This time it was Contador who was caught, seemingly unable to respond and it was the Sky rider who might have achieved the victory in today’s GC mindgames. This wasn’t the end though. If the script was going to be followed now was the time for Sagan to strike out for home. As AG2R’s Peraud made a bid for victory, Sagan stayed back, allowing the potentially dangerous Greg van Avermaet to go clear.

No one expected Vincenzo Nibali to spring an attack though; script torn up! With hindsight VCSE was reminded of Niki Terpstra riding away from the bunch at this years Paris Roubaix, everyone else looked at one another and by then it was too late. So Nibali goes into yellow and barring (literally) accidents on stage 5 he could hold onto it for at least the next week. Whether or not the Astana team leader has the legs to contend for the GC for three weeks is another thing entirely however. It remains to be seen whether this was Nibali taking an opportunistic win to set up a tilt at the race or was he just claiming the scraps that he feels he must go for from the the Froome Contadaor battle to come.

The opening stages of this years Tour have deviated from the predicted outcomes and have been all the better for it. Whether or not the rest of the race continues to be unpredictable remains to be seen, but it would be impossible to argue that Yorkshire hasn’t delivered as promised the greatest of Grand Departs.

See the VCSE 2014 TdF Preview 

 

Wet, Wet, Wet – VCSE’s Racing Digest #30

Giro 2014  Stages 2 & 3 Belfast to Belfast & Armagh to Dublin

With crowds lining the route in what has been pretty much awful weather it’s fair to say that bringing the 2014 Giro d’Italia to Ireland has been a huge success. The residents of Belfast and Dublin and towns and villages elsewhere on the route were always going to get into the spirit of the event and it will be interesting to see if there’s quite as much yellow being worn as Pink when the Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire in a month or two. There was a real sense that for three days at least the Giro belonged to Ireland rather than Italy and the weather couldn’t dampen those feelings.

Whether the teams enjoyed the three stages quite as much is probably more open to debate. The stages didn’t throw up many stories and in many ways (as flat stages often are) were less than exciting. The spectators found much more to enjoy than the actual participants. The opening TTT had some human interest with Dan Martin’s cruel exit, the suspected broken collarbone now confirmed and Svein Tuft getting handed a leaders jersey for his birthday. Taking in some the most beautiful coastline in the UK along the Antrim coast it was unfortunate that the weather just made it appear so grim. The view might have given some respite had the weather been better as the racing itself was pretty flat. The peloton was content to put in the miles in return for a fresh (or in this case dry) jacket from the team car.

Marcel Kittel’s presence meant that the sprint, at least in stage two, was a forgone conclusion and the Giant rider manage to survive even the disintegration of his lead out train to win easily as the race returned to Belfast. Ninety five percent of today’s stage from Armagh to Dublin was the same sleep inducing procession as the previous day, interspersed with accidents as riders nodded off through boredom. There was much speculation about a tricky S bend on the run into the line in Dublin, but as the race approached the roads had begun to dry out in the strong winds and it was negotiated with little fuss.

The peloton had already been funnelled onto a narrower section of a couple of kilometres earlier and by the time they went through 1k to go were very strung out. Kittel on his own at this point was some way back from Sky’s Ben Swift and Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. Swift, who had recovered his place at the head of the race was led out by Edvalt Boasson Hagen and right up to the line you would have thought he had won it. But in a superhuman effort it was Kittel who nicked the win by no more that a wheel. The big German collapsed afterwards demonstrating just how much he had put into the effort to overhaul Swift who finished a disappointed but worthy second.

The teams now go into a rest day as the Giro transfers down to southern Italy. Assuming Michele Scarponi is injured from his accident today, the race could have shrunk its group contenders already with Martin already out. The teams and riders will be hoping that no one has picked up a bug from three days of riding in almost continuous rain. There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from the Irish stages. That Orica Green Edge are great TTT riders is hardly news any more than Marcel Kittel is the worlds fastest sprinter in the world right now. Of the world tour teams those with the least ambition look like Belkin and Lotto who have stuck riders in the breakaways on both days.

The peloton may not look back on the Irish stages of this years Giro with much fondness (almost entirely due to the weather) but for the fans at the roadside the memories will linger on and hopefully inspire a new generation of Kelly’s and Roche’s.

Tour of California 

The Tour of California gets underway later tonight (UK time) with a stage starting and finishing in the state capital of Sacremento. The big story from the race is Sky’s entry. It’s a mixture of marketing for team and rider with Sky now sponsored by another News Corp company 21st Century Fox and Bradley Wiggins, who is now represented by agent to the stars Simon Fuller. The logic of the teams appearance in a marketplace so important for one of their title sponsors make sense, what isn’t so clear is whether or not Wiggins is the kind of character that American fans will take to their hearts. The possibility that Wiggins will make it big in the US is a question to be answered another day. Right now we have the rider’s stated aim of winning the GC over the course of eight stages that will follow the ToC’s traditional north to south trajectory after last years ‘experiment’ with a south to north parcours.

The north to south route has often seen the early stages run in the sort of weather that the 2014 Giro Peloton has ‘enjoyed’ in Ireland and this was part of the motivation for the switch to a southern start in the ToC last year. The law of unintended consequences as far as the route change was concerned was that the early stages saw riders suffering dehydration and heat stroke with some of the rouleurs who had spent the previous weeks in the wind and rain of northern France and Flanders collapsing in the intense heat of the Californian desert. North, south or south to north is of less concern to Wiggins than stage two’s TT around Folsom a town whose previous and let’s be honest greater claim to fame is for its prison immortalised in the Johnny Cash live recording. The TT is short at 20km, but this isn’t much more than the archetypal 10 miles distance used for most club TT’s and will be a distance that Wiggin’s should be comfortable with. The bigger question in terms of his GC ambitions will be whether or not he can eke out enough of an advantage (assuming he actually wins the stage) to be defended for the remainder of the race. Sky have selected a squad that draws heavily on its US riders and it does look a little light on riders who will set the kind of pace over the climbs that feature later in the race that will be essential for a Wiggins win.

The Sky / Wiggins appearance continues a trend seen before in the ToC which see’s riders integral to the marketing of bikes in the US making an appearance. Jens Voigt, a stage winner last year. is a case in point and continues his ‘farewell tour’ in the US. home of his bike sponsor Trek. The other marquee name worth mentioning is Peter Sagan. Sagan often has the sprints in the US as a bit of a benefit, but Omega Pharma Quick Step have bought Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen this year, so Sagan won’t have things quite his own way in 2014 VCSE suspects. Keep an eye out also for young British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart who’s racing in the US this year and is likely to feature in at least one of the breakaways.

Women’s Tour 

Winner of the Women's Tour - Marianne Vos
Winner of the Women’s Tour – Marianne Vos

 Some might say that the rise in popularity in cycling in the UK has been driven by the success of the aforementioned Sky and Wiggins. Actually the growth in popularity has been as much if not more so because the successes have crossed the gender barrier and riders like Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott are as popular as the mod knight of the realm. Announced last year by Tour of Britain organisers Sweetspot the maiden Women’s Tour has been run around the east of England this week and has attracted the cream of the women’s peloton including Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson.

It goes without saying that the chances of running an event for the first time, where the take up and interest from new fans will be so important to its ongoing success, needs good weather. Typically, as this is the UK it’s rained and when it hasn’t rained it’s been windy. The positive news is that this doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of the riders or, more importantly, the crowds who have turned out along the entire route to provide scenes that the women’s peloton aren’t always used to. Whether these same crowds will turn out again next year remains to be seen, but with a stage of the Tour coming through Cambridgeshire and Essex in July the locals are getting their fair share of professional road cycling this summer.

In trying to create a narrative to the race the organisers and media had attempted to talk up the race as face off between Vos and Armitstead. There was a grain of truth in this as Armitstead has enjoyed a successful start to the year with a win in the opening round of the women’s world cup, backed up by a series of podium places in the following rounds. With Vos only returning to the world cup at Fleche Wallone, Armitstead leads the world cup standings and from this the supposed rivalry with Vos emerged. The fantastically matter of fact Armitstead nipped this in the bud ahead of the first stage but the opening couple of stages did provide flashes of how much she has improved this year. Vos looked as if she was trying (and failing) to beat Armitstead in the intermediate sprints but the evidence of the final three stages would suggest she was just riding herself in.

After Johansson took the opening stage, we were treated to a breakaway win from Rossella Ratto in stage two, the peloton getting a bit huffy with one another over who should be putting in an effort to catch Ratto. From then on Vos took over taking the next three stages and the overall comfortably. No doubt the supposed Armitstead / Vos rivalry was swept under the carpet at the end of the race; Armitstead didn’t even start the final stage. There was good news for British riders with two of the next generation of women Hannah Barnes and Lucy Garner finishing in the top 10, less than a minute down on Vos in the final standings.

Whether or not the Women’s Tour is judged to be a success depends less on the crowds who turned out to what was a free event than the commercial success of the race. The title sponsor Friends Life was a late signatory and the some of the sponsors, familiar from the Tour or Britain, suggested that the organisers had been going around with the begging bowl to an extent. Getting a global brand like Strava involved was a bit a coup though. Is it the right thing to hold the Women’s Tour as a race in its own right as opposed to piggy backing the women’s event on to the Tour of Britain. This seems to work successfully at the Tour of Flanders and Fleche Wallone and there are some women in the peloton who want to race on a level playing field with the men. That the race exists is a good thing, but like the Tour of Britain itself has grown from its latest incarnation of ten years ago, The Women’s Tour needs to evolve.

500 channels and there’s nothing on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #21

It’s the beginning of the road racing season with the traditional (at least of recent years) season openers; the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the Tour de San Luis. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that VCSE was tuning into the Tour of Lombardy the last race of note each year. ‘The race of the falling leaves’ might be more accurately nick named ‘The race of the falling rain’. If 2013 was anything to go by it didn’t seem that a race could be held in Italy without an accompaniment of torrential rain. The UCI’s choice to stage the early world tour races in far from the european winter has less to do with a search for warm weather as a money making opportunity; witness the introduction of a stage race for Dubai this year. The ‘desert’ races in Qatar and Oman are worth a watch for the chance to see which sprint train is functioning the best and an early indicator of GC form respectively.

Simon Gerrans - TDU GC winner
Simon Gerrans – TDU GC winner

Before the peloton gets sand blown however they must journey south for the world tours solitary visits to the South American and Australian continents. Both races feature a mixture of stages with options for breakaway or sprint finishes. We say all this with the proviso that we haven’t actually watched any footage from either event! If you’re a cycling fan and want to watch races, either live or highlights, then it’s pretty much essential to have Eurosport. Whether that’s via some kind of TV or cable subscription or via the channels own web app Eurosport will have more coverage of more races than any other channel. Part of Eurosport’s charm is that they don’t just cover the races you expect like Paris Roubaix of the Tour. It’s often possible to tune in randomly and find that their live coverage of an obscure cat 2 race from some French back water. These are often the best races to watch if you yearn for a dominant team performance from FDJ or AG2R, who often appear to be there just to fill gaps in the peloton in the major races.

The TDU and San Luis aren’t covered by Eurosport so getting to see either race can involve some difficulties. Correction, getting to see the TDU is easy if you shell out further for Sky Sports. Sky seem to be taking a wait and see approach to snapping up the rights for the races that are currently covered by Eurosport. This might seem surprising considering their four year old and ongoing sponsorship of a world tour team, but for now at least, they have contented themselves with one or two races lower profile stage races shown live and highlights from the Giro. It may yet happen that Sky outbid ITV for their live rights to the Tour in 2015 and that may in turn have implications for those of us that rely on Eurosport. Sky don’t appear to be concerned at the likely loss of viewers if the Tour moves from its current terrestrial berth, no doubt reassured that they will recoup any investment via advertising revenues. It would be ironic if the one professional sport that doesn’t require a ticket to watch live would require an increasing level of subscription for the armchair fan.

So what are the options for the non Sky endowed to keep up with the action from down under? Ironically, the local broadcasters do offer a very good live web stream. The problem for the UK viewer is that accessing this directly from someone like SBS is blocked; this even applies to their YouTube highlights. Just as VCSE used to sit glued to teletext in the days before rolling 24 hour sports news, the (comparatively) low tech way to follow a race live is often via social media. Ironically Sky provide one of the best live feeds via their Twitter, if restricted to the races where they are competing. More of the world tour teams are starting to pick up on this idea of keeping the fans updated and it isn’t exclusive to the big outfits with smaller teams like Madison Genesis doing the same from the Tour series last year.

A constantly updated timeline from Sky works wonderfully when you can’t get closer to the action. It comes into it’s own when you’re actually at the side of the road during a race too, helping to work out when the race will flash by. The only time Sky’s regular Twitter updates during a stage can frustrate is when you are planning to watch ‘as live’ from a recording later in the day. VCSE’s evening in front of the telly has been ruined on more than once by inadvertently seeing a Sky tweet on our timeline. Less likely to appear for every race, but always around for the key ones is NYvelocity (@nyvelocity) if you want to laugh along with a race.

In race social media commentary from the riders might provoke controversy, although it would be interesting to have some open mics around to listen in to the conversations through the window of the team car. VCSE doesn’t claim to slavishly follow the output of every member of the peloton, but pre and post race some riders are better value than others. Jens Voigt and Taylor Phinney spring to mind as two that can be relied upon to say something a little less anodyne.

When it comes to stats there’s plenty to choose from. VCSE is never too many clicks from Steephill.TV during the season (see the links page) for details of who finished where and aggregation of the best reporting and video. Innrg (go to the links page again) does a regular feature about where the race was won. Cycling News is probably the best news source within the UK, but there are often (more) interesting perspectives from elsewhere in the world. Velonews (US) and Cycling Tips (Australia) are worth a bookmark.

So, what is the VCSE take on the opening week of 2014 road race season? Orica’s Simon Gerrans won a record third TDU title to go with his second Australian road race jersey. The Aussie outfit had a bit of breakthrough year in 2013 with Gerrans wearing yellow at the Tour. That Matt White’s return as DS after his doping ban coincided with this suggests that the team could be one to watch in the classics this season. Gerrans is a previous winner at Milan San Remo and if his form continues could be worth a punt in 2014.

Five seconds off the GC and a stage winner during the week was Lampre’s Diego Ulissi. The Italians have under performed in the last few years but a management shake up in the off season might suggest that Ulissi’s podium could be the first of many. Lampre have the world champion Rui Costa on their Merida’s this season and he’s a rider capable of freelancing some wins in 2014. The fact that the new team uniform is less lairy than recent years (the fluro pink has been turned down) must help too surely! With a further stage win taken by Sacha Modelo on the final stage at San Luis Lampre start the year at the dizzy heights of 4th in the UCI team rankings.

Is Marcel Kittel’s misfiring sprint cause for concern? This early in the season; probably not and it isn’t as if Kittel hasn’t won already this year (at the TDU prequel). Andre Greipel took two stage wins but takes the VCSE award for the best team kit of this year in Lotto’s homage to Merckx and Molteni. Talking of sprinters Mark Cavendish wasn’t able to repeat a stage win in Argentina with Tom Boonen finishing the stronger in the bunch sprints. Last year Cav went from San Luis to the overall in Qatar. Last year was a disaster for Boonen. Cavendish has complained in the past that his Omega Pharma team need to make up the mind what kind of team they want to be. Could it be that everything will be focused on getting Boonen in top condition for the classics at the expense of early season wins for Cavendish?

In a nutshell then, the VCSE predictions for the early season; another tilt at Milan San Remo for Gerrans, Lampre resurgent and all for Boonen at Omega Pharma.

Should be an interesting watch..

A fourth grand tour

This is the starting line of the Amgen Tour of...
Tour of California – can two go into one? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A moment of clarity while watching the USA Pro Challenge this week; could the US hold a ‘fourth’ grand tour? Let’s deal straight away with the Tour of California. Now VCSE doesn’t think that the TOC refers to itself any more as the ‘fourth grand tour’, but it was certainly touted as such when the race was born a few years back. Even the organisers (the ASO are heavily involved too) have realised that particular joke (they weren’t joking) isn’t funny anymore and the grand tour nomenclature has slipped quietly from view.

This isn’t to say that California doesn’t possess some great roads to race over. This years parcours was no exception and the decision to race from south to north in the state paid dividends as far as the weather was concerned too. For a race supposedly taking place in the sunshine state, previous editions run in the opposite direction have often been subject to the kind of weather we would expect in northern Europe.. in winter! Delusions of (literal) grandeur have not been the only thing stacked against the TOC ambitious marketing. An obvious issue is that the race is a week long only; perhaps more Paris Nice than Tour de France. The TOC could reasonably describe itself as the second ‘race to the sun’. The key point is that what makes a grand tour grand is its length and the distance involved predicates a route that covers a whole country rather than one US state. California as evidenced by its changing scenery is bigger than many countries, but the US is bigger still and this is what provides a challenge but also perhaps an opportunity for that fourth grand tour.

There are more stage races in the US than the two that appear on this years UCI World Calendar; the TOC and the USA Pro Challenge. The latter takes place days after another week long stage race the Tour of Utah. For the sake of argument lets say that a case could be made for combining the TOC on the west coast and the USAPC in Colarado. Both races currently take in mountain and sprint stages and can feature TT and summit finishes very easily. Run over two weeks rather than one or stretched into a third week with rest / transfer days and additional stages in each state it’s not such a great leap of imagination to see that of all places the US is best placed to deliver a genuine grand tour status event, rather than an over ambitious marketing claim.

From an infrastructure perspective it’s hard to imagine a country better equipped to transfer riders and teams from one state to another. While host TV coverage is often characterised by its hyperbole it has to be said that the timings and on screen information often exceeds that of the other races on the world tour (Tour of Poland time gaps anyone?). Provided there is no interference on the satellite feed (Tour of Utah is a good example of this) the HD quality of the US races is generally superb also.

The final ‘tick’ in the box for VCSE is the racing. The US continental teams at the TOC and the USAPC are always motivated to race and more importantly win. There was a genuine possibility of a US based team winning the TOC this year. OK, so having this and that team ‘presented by’ so and so doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but these teams are producing riders who are capable of moving up to a world tour team. There a more riders like Joe Dombrowski, a Sky neo pro this year after riding with US conti outfit Bontrager last year than journeymen in the peloton. Even the US riders who for obvious reasons return home for these events are super motivated to race hard. If you hadn’t watched the US stage races this year you would have thought that the highlight of Tejay Van Garderen’s year was getting beaten on Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. At home he has looked if not super strong, then definitely the most consistent GC rider, although he totally buried himself to with the uphill TT in the USAPC last week.

Money is a huge consideration even looking at a week long event, but these US races are a marketeers dream for any bike manufacturer. The fans cannot get enough of riders like Jens Voight and Peter Sagan and it seems like a safe bet to suggest that a two week race would provide many more opportunities to promote your wares.

Timing could be the biggest stumbling block. The TOC overlaps with the Giro and the USAPC front ends the Vuelta. It feels like the right time to schedule a two week race would be around the time of the Tour of Utah / USAPC as this would at least guarantee the weather. ASO having a foot in both camps as far as the TOC and the Vuelta are concerned could actually turn out to be a good thing in terms of scheduling. Consider the riders not at the Vuelta who could have starred in a two week ‘Tour of the Wild West’. Froome, Porte, Sagan, Rogers, Millar, Schleck, Van Garderen and Voight. With proto grand tour status it’s hard to dispute that more world tour teams would be in attendance swelling the ranks of top pros further.

The somewhat fragile nature of cycling economics will probably mean it will never happen. VCSE would rather see additional investment from the likes of ASO and the teams going into funding expansion of women’s professional cycling. However this does feel like an idea that could take off purely on the marketing potential for the bike manufacturers and the chance for the US television networks to sustain the interest that spikes with the Tour in July. Will there be a fourth grand tour and will it be held in the US. Perhaps it’s not such a daft idea.

Tour de France 2013 – VCSE’s fans eye view

Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier
Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier

As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.

To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.

As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.

Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier 

Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.

It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.

The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.

The Banette Baguette man
The Banette Baguette man

These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.

All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:

A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.

Free Fabric softener anyone? - The Tour publicity caravan
Free Fabric softener anyone? – The Tour publicity caravan

And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.

At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.

After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*

Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6
Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6

With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.

Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan

Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.

We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.

The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7
The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7

You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.

VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.

*Boasson Hagen was 3rd on GC going into Stage 8