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.

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “..no better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

Continue reading Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Giro d’Italia 2014 – final week and round up

Giro d’Italia 2014 week 3 – stages 17 through 21 

After the Stelvio ‘controversy’ the peloton awarded itself a fourth rest day on Wednesday’s stage to Vittorio Veneto. As riders placed their feet in bowls of hot water and nursed a Cup a soup overnight a collective hissy fit was aired officially (between the team’s organisation, the UCI and RCS) and unofficially on social media about the legitmacy of Nairo Quintana’s stage win and capture of the race lead from Rigoberto Uran. The likelihood of teams withdrawing enmasse was never that much of a possibility and by the end of the race any lingering indignation looked academic.

Grio d'Italia 2014 winner - Nairo Quintana
Grio d’Italia 2014 winner – Nairo Quintana

From VCSE’s vantage point on the sofa it seems that any suggestion that the race ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ be neutralised disappeared when Sky’s Dario Cataldo said ‘no thanks!’ to the offer of an extra layer of clothing and his musette and went charging off on the descent. Yes, riders did stop at the top of the Stelvio, but at random. VCSE didn’t see a single example of an entire group of riders coming to a halt. The apparent ‘smoking gun’ evidence against the Quintana group, that included other GC contenders like Ryder Hesjedal, was the photo of the Columbian descending behind a moto with the pillion holding a red flag. It wasn’t altogether clear what the flag signified but it certainly wasn’t to indicate that the race had been neutralised. Whether it was safe (or not) to continue to race the descent off the Stelvio seems a moot point. Were there any crashes? In the (undoubted) confusion that followed the sum up seems to be those that chose to race, did and anyone else suffered the consequences of that.

The lack of interest shown by the new Maglia Rosa and his GC rivals the following day bore testimony at the difficulty of the previous day however. No one watching, let alone taking part, could deny it hadn’t been a tough stage with the addition of the climb to Val Martello added a 14% insult to the Stelvio / Gavia injury. The peloton crossed the line more than 15 minutes down on eventual stage winner Stefano Pirazzi. Last years KOM winner had been out of contention for that prize since the carnage of the Cassino stage but he salvaged some pride for himself and further built on Bardiani’s success at this years race.

A break of sorts was allowed the win the following day as well as the Giro returned to the mountains for its penultimate summit finish. This years KOM and (yet another) Columbian, Trek’s Julian Arredondo took the stage from compatriot Fabio Duarte reinforcing the thought that the race was rapidly becoming some kind of South American benefit. Quintana arrived with Uran, but it was Cadel Evans who was the biggest loser of the day falling off the podium and almost out of the top ten.

This years edition of the Giro was well and truly back loaded with climbs and if the Stelvio / Gavia double wasn’t enough there was still the Zoncolan to look forward to and possibly shake the GC up further. Ahead of that an uphill TT, 27km in length of which more than two-thirds averaged nearly 8% maxing out at 14%. No TT bikes here then and the climbers and GC boys to the fore. Breakaway fixtures Cataldo and Lotto’s Tim Wellens performed well for their top ten placings but the podium spots went to the GC contenders. Very nearly the ride of the stage went to Fabio Aru, just missing out on the win, but claiming a podium place from Pierre Rolland. The home crowd showed partisan support to a home rider who was now in with the best chance of a repeat Italian victory, but Quintana was the expressionless asassin of local hopes as he put 17 seconds into Aru at the line.

And so to the ‘final’ GC stage; Zoncolan. Actually, the profile shared a reasonable amount with Tuesdays three peak extravaganza adding a cat 1 and 2 climb into the mix ahead of the summit finish. A decent sized break had got away here as well and the finale provided a race within a race as we waited to see who would take the stage and could anyone threaten Quintana’s lead. The latter really wasn’t ever in doubt. While Quintana rode much of the climb unsupported, Uran hasn’t really looked capable of attacking anyone over the three weeks and certainly not since he took the Maglia Rosa. It was an OPQS rider who did the damage to split the final group to pieces, but that was Wout Poels.

Up the road stage 11 breakaway winner was involved in a dual with emerging Bardiani (yes, them again) rider Francesco Bongiorno. In truth, Rogers looked the stronger of the two even if Bongiorno hadn’t lost out when an attempt to ‘help’ him hadn’t backfired and pushed him into Rogers wheel and out of his pedal. If Rogers first win had been unexpected then a second on this stage and this climb was perhaps even more so. Rogers had more help on this one, crucially Tinkoff Saxo had two experienced men in the break, but even so the win wasn’t universally accalaimed.

Five minutes behind and below, while Rogers was helped from his bike by team owner Tinkoff, Quintana was making serene progress up the Zoncolan in attendance with a trio of QPQS outriders. If there wasn’t going to be a fight between the two Columbian’s there wasn’t much of a battle between those riders contending for the final podium place. Aru had already done the damage to Rolland and stealing a few more seconds on the line was just proving a point. You almost hoped for a Hinault, Lemond style Alpe du Huez celebration by Quintana and Uran as the line approached but despite being awarded the same time the wasn’t any overt sign of cameraderie. In the final analysis it was the Zoncolan itself that provided the drama on the day with unruly fans and the riders fighting the climb more than each other.

The final day’s parade into Trieste was always likely to finish in a sprint, although quite a few riders had a stab at winning from a break. At one stage three time stage winner Nacer Bouhanni looked like he would be out of contention, but his stalwart lead out man Sebastien Chavanel managed to pull him back to the front only for Giant’s Luka Mezgec to show once again that the team have depth behind Degenkolb and Kittel.

Giro d’Italia 2014 wrap up 

So what does this years Giro tell us about the state of play in 2014 and looking ahead to the rest of this season and the next? Nairo Quintana justified his favourite status and everyone (in particular his rivals) admits he would have won the race without needing any advantage that might have been stolen on the Stelvio stage.

It’s a leap further to suggest, as Movistar have done, that Quintana was right to target the Giro over the Tour following his second place in France last year. Of course, having made the point that Quintana was an unknown quantity going into the Giro and thus wasn’t an automatic favourtite as a result the same could be said of Chris Froome going into this years Tour. If Quintana has been so strong at the end of May it does make you wonder how good he could have been at the start of July. Movistar look like the team best placed to control a race from the front too. Without taking anything away from Quintana’s win it does feel a little like the easier option has been taken in not pitting the Columbian against Froome this  year. Of course, the Tour lacks the really steep (in sections) parcours of the Giro but it’s a shame that we will have to most likely wait until 2015 to see a Froome, Quintana match up.

The VCSE view on Rigoberto Uran ahead of the Giro was (to paraphrase Eminem) that the real Uran needed to stand up. Uran had looked second best against established OPQS rider Michael Kwiatowski  so far this year and other than the stage win where he took the Maglia Rosa didn’t look as if team leadership sat well on his shoulders. Of course, there’s no shame in finishing on the podium at a grand tour but it does look as if Uran lacks the final few percent that separate the contenders from the champions. The OPQS team selection plays a part too though, lacking enough strong climbers to go with Poels and Pauwels to match up against Movistar and the distractions of the team management making too much of the Stelvio incident.

Perhaps a bigger disappointment, at least for the home fans, was Domenico Pozzovivo. The AG2R rider carried form into the race and at the end of the first week looked like the form rider. He flattered to deceive however and while a top ten was the VCSE prediction ahead of the race, Pozzovivo didn’t fulfil his own prophesy that he would “..attack”. Cadel Evans faded sharply in the final week, his strategy of sticking with the leader during each stage back firing completely on the Stelvio stage as he got caught with Uran as Quintana rode away. Once Quintana had taken the jersey Evans looked less and less likely to not lose time. This is likely to be his last time as a challenger for GC in a grand tour.

Fabio Aru had been touted as a climbing talent ahead of the Giro, but Astana had him in a supporting role to Michele Scarponi who had joined the team to become the number two GC rider behind Vincenzo Nibali. Third place, some strong climbing performances and his win on stage 15 puts Aru into ‘great white hope’ category for Italian GC hopes in the next five years and for now the heir apparent to Nibali. It will be interesting to see now if Astana give Scarponi another shot at a grand tour in this years Vuelta or will Aru be elevated to team leader without having the role handed to him by events. Of course, Aru isn’t the only young Italian rider who has grand tour credentials in the peloton, but he has looked the most convincing this week and everyone will always take notice of an apparent ‘surprise’ emergence, just as they did with a certain Columbian last year.

Nacer Bouhanni’s win of the points jersey is an interesting one. This blog lauded Mark Cavendish’s victory last year as a triumph in a contest that doesn’t tend to favour sprinters. Does Bouhanni’s win put him on a par with Cavendish or was the competition less this year? Certainly, as mentioned in the Giro preview the first rank of sprinters were largely missing (Kittel went home after the Irish stages). If nothing else Bouhanni, out of contract this year, has put himself in the shop window and if he can take Chavanel with him could bring some much needed sprint credentials to somewhere like Sky next year.

Perhaps the happiest team in terms of results would be Bardiani with three stage victories in this years Giro. Bardiani took a stage last year, but the team that featured most at the front of the race was Vini Fantini only for them to fall foul of positive drug tests. There’s been no such suspicion about the Bardiani team this year and with the emergence of riders like Aru it’s to be hoped that scandal doesn’t engulf what could be the start of a brighter era for Italian cycling that isn’t tainted by doping.

This years Giro will be remembered as a Columbian renaissance . Amongst the crashes and manufactured controversy Quintana’s win and strong showing from Columbian riders from teams throughout the peloton (as well as the ‘national’ team) it feels as if naturally talented riders are once again coming to the fore. The most numerous nation represented in the top 30 on GC outside of the hosts, Columbian riders took the KOM (Arredondo) as well as four stage wins (Quintana two, Uran and Arredondo one each). Quintana has made the leap in little over a year from a climber to grand tour winner and is the strongest evidence yet of a cleaner doping free peloton.

And the Oscar goes to.. VCSE’s Racing Digest #31

Tour or California 2014 

Just as he said he would Bradley Wiggins won the Tour of California yesterday. Although his lead had been seconds rather than minutes a Wiggins victory hadn’t really looked in doubt after he took a convincing TT win on stage two. The expected challenger for the stage BMC’s Taylor Phinney had finished a disappointing (for him if not the race) 52 seconds down and two places down on the Team Sky rider. Second place on the day had gone to Garmin’s Rohan Dennis and it was the Australian who was expected to provide the competition for Wiggins for the GC. There’s a changing of the guard at Garmin now as some of the team’s aging roster head into retirement and new younger riders come to the fore. Dennis had gone out fairly early on the stage and set a time, but Wiggins destroyed the field and was the only rider to go sub 24 mins over the 20.1km course.

AToC 2014 winner - Bradley Wiggins
AToC 2014 winner – Bradley Wiggins

If Wiggins looked impressive over a short TT stage it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There was a similar outcome in the last TT stage in a week long stage race he targeted; last years Tour of Britain. Confirmation of just how strong Wiggins was riding came 24 hours later as the race headed to Mount Diablo in a repeat of one of the 2013 editions summit finishes. For everyone that was saying how lean Wiggins was looking in pursuit of the GC (he reputedly lost five kilos between finishing Paris Roubaix and starting the race) there would be someone else, including pointedly BMC DS Max Sciandri, saying that Sky would struggle to support Wiggins on the climbs. On the climb of Mount Diablo Wiggins showed that he wasn’t going to need supporters, he would make the selection himself. For much of the climb on a gradient that suited him Wiggins rode off the front at high tempo shelling riders easily. Only in the final few hundred metres did he begin to lose out as riders, notably Dennis, took up the pace. Dennis took seconds out of the lead, but crucially Wiggins still held it and once the euphoria of the stage win for Dennis died down it was hard to see how Wiggins could be toppled.

Dennis, the closest of his rivals, and the others could attack the lead on stage 6 to Mountain High but if anything Wiggins was stronger at the end as he managed to gap the Garmin rider and add another couple of seconds to his advantage. With two stages left, both of which were likely to end in a bunch sprint Wiggins looked safe and indeed that proved to be the case. He won the Tour of California by less than a minute, but his margin of superiority was far greater than the time gap showed.

So, mission accomplished then. Naturally, post race questions wondered if the win would have implications for Wiggins’ plans come July. The question was inevitable, even if it was just viewed as a US interviewer aggrandising their race. The so called ‘fourth grand tour’. Wiggins answered with a straight bat; if he was going to do the Tour it would be in support of Froome. The significant part of his answer was the ‘if’. Let’s indulge in fantasy for a second and state that Wiggins looks like the rider who one the Tour in 2012 and based on that why not let him lead Sky in the Tour. From a marketing perspective this would make total sense as Wiggins is far more popular than Froome with the wider (non-cycling) audience. Only Wiggins has the reach that could push the World Cup off the back pages.

However, Team Sky management have a strategy that is centred on Froome and everything else has to take second place to that. If Froome stamps his feet and says he doesn’t want Wiggins at the Tour then Wiggins will not be selected. Shrewder heads, like erstwhile Sky insider Shane Sutton have already indictated that could be the case even though it would seem inexplicable to many. An understanding of the thinking behind a decision like this is required. Based on performances so far this year Wiggins is arguably the stronger rider of the two. But, but Sky made their choice last year. Both riders need careful handling, but Froome has the kind of single mindedness  that Wiggins can’t maintain, particularly in a team which, even if it was once, is no longer centred on him.

It will take a massive drop in form and or fitness by Froome for Sky to look again to Wiggins for the Tour as leader, even if he could be a favourite again. Everything that Sky have done so far indicates that they have bet the house on Froome to defend his title. Wiggins may yet be selected as a superdomestique for the Tour, but VCSE suspects that there will be a few more twists yet.

The Tour of California feels like there are races within the race as it always seems to manage to throw up an unusual result or two besides the GC battle and the sprint stages. This years edition was no different. In fact stages 4 and 5 provided two different outcomes that wouldn’t have been predicted ahead of the race. Stage 4 was a bit of a comedy of errors as the sprinters teams miscalculated the catch for the break and it was left to the third division US based teams to duke it out for the win. Taylor Phinney redeemed himself from the TT by soloing off the front on the final climb of stage 5 to take the win in Santa Barbara. Phinney’s only other stage win came in similar, if less relaxed, circumstances last year in Poland. He had the time to bow theatrically this time around and it’s no surprise that a win for a marquee US rider goes down very well at this race.

The leftovers were divided between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. Cavendish appearing at the race for the first time in Omega Pharma Quick Step colours bookended the race with a win in the first and then the final stages. Cannondale probably breathed a huge sigh of relief that Sagan was able to take at least one stage. As good as he is, in an out and out sprint with Cavendish it’s really no contest. Cavendish’s first win has been replayed more than normal following the release of video from the on bike camera of runner up John Degenkolb. The UCI have suggested that cameras could be allowed in some races and based on the footage below it should be adopted as quickly as possible, albeit on a similar delay to the radio clips used on F1 coverage.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – week one stages 4 through 9 

One word to sum up the Giro so far; attritional. After losing Dan Martin before the first (TTT) stage had even finished, Marcel Kittel was gone as well and we weren’t even in Italy yet. The first stage on Italian soil in the far south of the country and finishing in the port city of Bari good weather might have been expected. Instead with the race visiting the area for the first time in thirty years we had rain, the difference being that this was as unusual in Bari as it was common in Ireland. Cue a pretty much neutralised stage that was eventually taken by FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni after the Giant team, trying to win in the absence of team leader Kittel, suffered a mechanical.

With Kittel gone it’s almost worth Bouhanni staying on at the race as it’s hard to see who will offer much opposition in the sprints. Bouhanni, to use a football analogy is a Europa league rider with ambitions to join the Champions league with Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel. Now that the Giant rider has abandoned he’s facing the equivalent of the lower divisions, although it’s strange that Elia Viviani hasn’t challenged more.

That story is a bit part as far as week one of the Giro is concerned. The big story has been the decimation of the field; a combination of bad weather and accidents (caused by the bad weather) robbing the race of contenders and / or key support riders. Biggest victims of misfortune are Katusha who have lost Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampolo Caruso and Angel Vicioso. It emerged that Rodriguez had started the race with tow broken ribs, sustained during Ardennes week. Added to that a broken finger during stage 7 to Monte Cassino and J Rod was out. If that was bad news and the accident that caused Caruso to abandon looked worse during prolonged camera shots in the aftermath of the crash what happened to Vicioso is truly tragic. He has been forced to retire, not just from the race but from the sport after suffering a triple fracture of his femur on the same stage.

Orica’s Michael Matthews won the stage in the Maglia Rosa having held the lead since the race left Ireland the previous weekend. Matthews had fancied his chances the previous day, but had managed to avoid the carnage on stage 7 and get away with a select group for the climb to Cassino. The key beneficiary as far as the GC was concerned was Cadel Evans. There was some mutterings that Evans shouldn’t have pressed the advantage with so many riders effected by the crash, but wiser heads dismissed it as a racing incident. It wasn’t as if Matthews teammates weren’t impacted either; Orica lost two riders on the stage due to the crash.

Evans takes a lead of around a minute into week two. At this point in the race it’s probably not enough of a lead, particularly with the final weeks climbs to come. Evans at least has a strong rider in support inside the top 10 and this could pay dividends if the likes of Rigoberto Uran or, more likely, Nairo Quintana decides to attack. Quintana has the most time to make up, 1.45 back on Evans and if the places were reversed you would suspect that the Movistar rider would feel more comfortable defending that lead than the Australian who will suffer on the steeper climbs to come. Uran will probably fulfil a watching brief for now, although a similar attack to the one that brought his stage win in last years race could really shake up the GC. Like Evans, Uran has some strong domestiques who he can use to cover attacks if they come.

For home fans the top ten has three Italians who might well feature on the podium if not the top step. Of the three the one with the most to celebrate on todays rest day is Lampre’s Diego Ulissi who has already taken two stage wins. He’s a versatile rider and both of his wins have come from late surges in the last few hundred metres. He’s unlikely to be given the chance to attack for a breakaway win, but if he can hang with the best climbers in the next couple of weeks he might nick another win or two, even if the top prize is likely to elude him. Fabio Aru has inherited the Astana team leadership now that Michele Scarponi has lost time following the week one carnage. He’s least likely of the three in VCSE’s view. Which leaves AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. Tipped in the VCSE Giro preview, Pozzovivo looked strong is yesterdays stage and put time into Evans to move within a minute and a half of the lead. What he lacks however is a really strong set of domestiques to back him and this could be the difference between a podium finish or just a stage win or two this year. Like Aru, Rafal Majka has ‘benefited’ from the demise of his team leader at Tinkoff Saxo Nico Roche. Majka currently sits third and could build on a strong performance in last years race.

The week ahead has a 42km TT and two mountain stages over the weekend. With another (uphill) TT and three more mountain stages to come it’s unlikely that this week will see the final selection as far as GC is concerned but any pretenders will be eliminated by the time the race reaches Montecampione on Sunday afternoon.

Who’s going to run the Ronde? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #26

E3 Harelbeke / Gent Wevelgem 

Fabian Cancellara looked pretty unhappy with second place at Milan San Remo and he was probably just as miffed at the two fingers held up to him by the peloton while defending his E3 title last Friday. Cancellara had ridden pretty much side by side with Tom Boonen for much of the race before an incident saw him get gapped by the leading group of riders.

Can he beat Spartacus? - Peter Sagan
Can he beat Spartacus? – Peter Sagan

OK, so not winning MSR counts as a failure if you’re in the first rank of classics specialists, but for anyone else second place in the longest one day classic would be something to celebrate (ask Ben Swift how he feels about finishing third!). Cancellara rolled in at E3 inside the top 10, over a minute down on winner Peter Sagan, but the way that he tore up the field trying to get back in touch with the leaders was incredible even for a rider like Spartacus. After passing through the middle of some groups as if they were going backwards, Cancellara eventually came across a teammate Stijn Devolder who put in his own monster turn to try and get his team leader back in the game.

Up the road were two Omega Pharma riders; the in form Niki Terpstra and Stiyn Vandenbergh, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Sagan. Terpstra was on and off his radio like an anxious mum waiting for her teenage son to come home. Boonen, no doubt out of sorts owing to the terrible news of his girlfriend miscarrying had lost touch and was slipping out of contention. Or was he? At one point Cancellara and Devolder had cajoled the chasers into life and got within 40 seconds of the leading four, but Boonen seemed to be a spent force.

While the OPQS boys were told to hurry up and wait, Sagan was doing his own Cancellara impression judging by the gesticulations he was making to his fellow escapee’s. As Cancellara often wonders, Sagan couldn’t see why Thomas, Terpstra and Vandenbergh weren’t riding with, if not for him. Obviously there was an advantage for Thomas (and the two Omega Pharma teammates depending on the message they were currently getting from their team car) to stay away, but if it came to a bunch sprint there was only ever going to be one winner. Terpstra and Vandenbergh were undone by the conflicting messages and perhaps the Dutchman by his win earlier in the week. Thomas didn’t have that excuse to use and if he had anything in the tank as the race entered the final kilometres surely he should have attempted a break of his own, rather than covering the ones tried by Terpstra and Vandenbergh. Surely he didn’t think he could take Sagan in a sprint to the line? Whatever he did think, the outcome was always going to be a Sagan win.

You might think that winning on Friday would have given the Cannondale rider a hall pass for Sunday’s Gent Wevelgem, the race he won in convincing fashion last year with the famous wheelie over the line followed by the infamous bottom pinching incident a week later at the Ronde. OK, so Sagan didn’t win, but third place isn’t to shabby (ask Ben Swift how he feels about third place again). The race was won by Giant Shimano’s John Degenkolb who had been much fancied for MSR. Its tempting to wonder if Degenkolb was feeling the possibility of getting usurped by yet another product of the Giant sprint programme who was winning for fun in Catalunya. Second went to VCSE MSR tip Arnaud Demare; the race being something of a sprinters classic after all.

So ahead of this weekends Tour of Flanders who’s likely to figure and who’s likely to win? Let’s deal with the contenders first. The best team will be Omega Pharma. Boonen doesn’t look his best, but Terpstra and the rest of the supporting cast look super strong. They will have riders at the front with or without Boonen, but if Boonen does falter they will need to think a lot faster to get the win. A good each way would be Sep Vanmarcke who’s been in touch in a lot of the races and has a couple of top 10’s in E3 and Gent going into the race. Sky won’t be anywhere, unless Thomas can deliver an unlikely podium. It’s not really a race for Ian Stannard who’s also injured after a crash at Gent.

Which leaves us Sagan and Cancellara. If Cancellara hadn’t been held up at E3 VCSE suspects he would have rode away from the field in a repeat of last years race. It’s hard to imaging Cancellara would have waited for Sagan if he had been in the group of four last Friday. This isn’t to say Sagan’s not strong. A win and third place in three days is a great performance by any standard, but for all of his ability to read a race and to ride unsupported he needs a sprint to win. Cancellara won’t give him that opportunity on Sunday.

Volta a Catalunya / Criterium International

So Giant have yet another sprint talent in their ranks to go with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. Luka Mezgec took three out of the seven stages available, albeit against a second / third rank of sprinters in Catalunya. The race had promised much with top BC talent lining up including Froome, Contador and Rodriguez.

Froome had missed Tirreno Adriatico with back problems so this was his first race since defending his Tour of Oman title back in February. Stage 3 was the first mountain stage and the winner was Rodriguez with a trademark late dig to outdistance his rivals and take the race lead overall. Froome had attempted to ride away himself but was soon caught and then overhauled by Purito, Contador, Nairo Quintana and perhaps the biggest surprise Tejay Van Garderen.

Van Garderen was the winner the following day in the weather effected (at least if you were trying to watch it on TV) stage to Vallter 2000 (why do they give ski resorts names like this?). Froome slipped further down the GC to 7th and by the time the race had ended  with a final rain swept stage in Barcelona was off the GC table altogether.

Contador looked like his mission was to strike a psychological blow to Froome. He let Rodriguez go once he had overhauled Froome on stage 3 and didn’t really try that hard to snatch the GC despite only having a few seconds gap between him and the leader for the remainder of the race. Does this tell us much about the likely fortunes of the contenders for the grand tours? Possibly not, although Sky have tended to want to exert a vice like grip on the races they enter their Tour de France team leaders in over the last few years. Despite this mishap, it should be remembered that Froome looked the class of the field in Oman and lost his key lieutenant Richie Porte early on to illness here. If Froome is vulnerable, if Contador is back on form, if Van Garderen is clear team leader at the Tour then 2014 won’t go entirely Sky’s way. At this point, however, Froome probably remains the man to beat.

Weight of expectation also seems to be taking its toll on Quintana who hasn’t looked good in his last two outings. He won the Pais Vasco last year and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the remainder of his preparation races for the Giro. Porte is Sky’s nominated team leader in Italy and he’s lacking in form and fitness. With the favourites running out of time to get in shape it could play into the hands of someone like Rigoberto Uran or Michele Scarponi for the honours this time around in the fight for pink.

Sky were absent from the Criterium International this year with Froome electing to ride in Catalunya instead. The race had a resultant French feel and French winner in the unluckiest rider from last years Tour Jean-Christophe Peraud. Peraud along with Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil in Catalunya look in good form this year and this bodes well for an improvement in French fortunes at their grand tour in July.

 

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.

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

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