This year’s classics season is being turned on its head by a couple of unlikely teams; Sky and Katusha. Alexander Kristoff added another win for Katusha and his second monument victory today by winning the Ronde. Kristoff’s relatively straightforward success adds to Luca Paolini’s win in Gent Wevelgem last week and his own second place in Milan San Remo to place Katusha top of the teams in this year’s spring classics.
After winning Milan San Remo the previous year Kristoff was naturally going to be one of the favourites for that race again this year but he hasn’t been seen as a rider who would figure as highly in the cobbled classics. He had been near the sharp end of the peloton in E3 and Gent Wevelgem but his three stage wins and taking the GC in this weeks 3 Days of De Panne made him a red hot tip for the Ronde. Kristoff was beginning to show his sprinting chops last year and he ran Marcel Kittel really close for the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee for the final stage of the Tour. He has is mining a rich vein of form at the moment that just makes the likelihood of him winning a bunch sprint seem like a foregone conclusion. Three stage wins on the relatively benign De Panne parcours didn’t necessarily mean that victory in the Ronde would be easy to come by. Kristoff appeared to realise this; attacking ahead of the final ascents of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg and building a small but ultimately decisive gap to the chasing group.
It could and indeed has been argued that this years spring races are wide open as they lack two principal characters; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen is rapidly running out of time to add to his Flanders and Roubaix totals and like 2013 he’s out of this years races through injury. Unlike 2013 Boonen didn’t even get as far as the early races after his tumble at the back of the pack early on in Paris Nice. Cancellara joined his great rival on the sick list after crashing out of E3 and the rest of the classics season when it was revealed he had fractured vertebrae. Boonen had shown the briefest indicators of form winning Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and animating sections of Roubaix last year but Cancellara has been the rider during the same period winning Flanders twice, Roubaix and E3 along with strong finishes in MSR. A master of hiding his form until it matters the only indication we had of Cancellara’s 2015 form was a high finish behind Kristoff in this years MSR. I can’t help feeling that a fit Fabs would have been a factor today if only because so many of the peloton look to him to decide how they’re going to run their own race.
In E3 the beneficiary of Cancellara’s absence was Sky’s Geraint Thomas. His win in the semi classic has made this Sky’s best classics showing to date and the Welshman was rightly considered a favourite today. It’s a measure of how results have increased the teams confidence that Sky tried to control a lot of the race today. Perhaps unfairly a lot of the mainstream reporting in the UK has centred on Bradley Wiggins who will attempt to win Paris Roubaix next weekend. Wiggins had been in good form on the road and off it in the run up to today with an emphatic victory in the TT stage at De Panne and in interviews where he cited his desire to help Thomas to victory in the Ronde. I’m absolutely certain that this was the Sky strategy with Wiggins planned as the rider to break up the bunch to set up a Thomas win. Unfortunately for Wiggins he slid off early in proceedings and spent the rest of the race at the wrong end of the pack. It will be interesting to see how the events of today impact next weekend. At one point it looked like Wiggins was going to be escorted back to the front by Bernie Eisel who had shepherded him at De Panne but this didn’t come to much. Was Wiggins physically unable to contribute or had he mentally checked out of the race at that point? He was still appearing in shot at the back of the peloton late into the race and it’s true that he needed a race at this distance to prepare for Roubaix. If Wiggins did decide that he wasn’t going to contribute today (for whatever reason) it could have implications for how much support he can expect next week. Sky went from having riders in support of Thomas at the front to suddenly having just Luke Rowe (who has been a super domestique in the classics this year). If Wiggins had stayed on the bike it’s possible that Thomas could have had something in reserve for the final k’s, maybe Wiggins would have been part of a three man break with Kristoff and Niki Terpstra. Let’s just take things at face value for a moment and say that Wiggins just came off and that was his day done. If there’s nothing more to it than that it does show how so much of one day racing is down to luck. Wiggins will need more of that commodity if he’s going to go out on a high in Roubaix’s velodrome next weekend.
Niki Terpstra has been Etixx Quick Step’s mister consistency with a podium place today to go with last weeks in Gent Wevelgem. For Etixx though this has been a pretty forgettable classics campaign. Zdenek Stybar’s win in Strade Bianche and Cavendish taking KBK are the only bright spots where the majority of discussion has been around how the team have failed to capitalise on having numbers in the final selection. Terpstra will defend his Paris Roubaix title next weekend and it will be a last throw of the dice for Etixx before the team turns its attention to the grand tours.
Terpstra probably should have gone long today if he wanted to beat Kristoff but my sense is that he went with him to attempt to cover for Stybar. Kristoff’s victory, like that of John Degenkolb in MSR, marks him as more than just a sprinter. With Thor Hushovd’s retirement last year (a party that Kristoff spoilt by snatching the win in Thor’s final race) he was always going to be the heir apparent for Hushovd’s ‘hammer’. In winning today Kristoff has demonstrated that he can emulate Hushovd further by being a factor in one day races and on the right course possibly another Scandinavian wearer of the rainbow stripes.
Every now and again, often when you least expect it, you get to see a fantastic bike race. Let’s be honest sometimes watching racing can be the equivalent of a mid-table mid week nil nil football match. I stick with it, mostly because I’m a fan and this is my chosen sport. But I also try to watch every race, be it one day or stage of a tour because every now and again cycling delivers something special. I have sat through hours of live coverage on a day that’s promised fireworks only to end up feeling disappointed with the realisation that I could have been out riding my bike rather than watching someone else riding theirs. But then there are days like Sunday. There are days were I count myself lucky that I could see a race like Gent Wevelgem 2015.
And this was an unexpected gem. It was a first for the race being shown live via Eurosport rather than some moody feed off a website. The #HomeofCycling had served up a veritable buffet for the armchair fan this week with the Volta Catalunya, E3 Harelbeke and the Criterium International all showing in addition to Sunday’s offering. This was going to involve some juggling with the remote control and the DVR to make sure that I didn’t miss any of the action. It also required a bit of thought about what to watch live; the crit a like final stage up and over Montjuic in the Volta or go straight into GW. As things worked out (read as the clocks going forward) I ended up missing all but the last 10km of the Volta anyway and there was still plenty of racing left to do in Flanders.
And talk about the perfect time to tune in. As the peloton clawed its way forward up an arrow straight tree lined road I watched echelons beginning to form as riders who were unlucky enough to find themselves isolated leaned 45 degrees into the wind to try and stay on their bikes. The conditions in Gent Wevelgem are nothing like the whole story of the race but they were a vital factor in the racing that followed adding a mixture of drama, suspense and dare I say it amusement (for me at least). We have already lost some of the main protagonists for the classics due to injury this year and I don’t want to see any riders get (badly) hurt but even some of the riders who fell victim to the wind on Sunday could see the funny side of being blown into ditches from what I saw on social media today.
The difficulty that some riders had trying to stay in touch blew the peloton apart at this point. We got a glimpse of Mark Cavendish struggling to get back on after a puncture. We didn’t get so much as a mention of Bradley Wiggins who tends to think racing in these kind of conditions is a bit of mugs game. It didn’t take long until for the key elements to detach and set the scene for the next 80 or so kilometres.
Much of the talk as far as Sky’s classics campaign was concerned pre-season had centred on Wiggins targeting Paris Roubaix. As things got underway the team got off to a good start with Ian Stannard repeating in Het Neiuwsblad but things unravelled badly in Milan San Remo. Stand out performer there was Geraint Thomas who destroyed himself to try and set up Ben Swift for the win to no avail. A week later and all of that had changed though. It may have been of click-baiting on my part to suggest that Sky had cocked up their classics campaign but I think the view I advanced that they needed a big result in the forthcoming races was right on the money. It might be splitting hairs to say that Thomas winning E3 on Friday isn’t a big win but as far as Sky’s classics performance is concerned 2015 has become their best showing to date.
Thomas was in the thick of things again on Sunday, part of a select group that had got away in pursuit of Lotto Soudal’s Jurgen Roelandts. With Thomas were Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh, Roelandt’s Lotto teammate Jens Debusschere, BMC’s Daniel Oss and after jumping across later Niki Terpstra and Luca Paolini.
Every now and again the host broadcaster would briefly cut back to the peloton if only to confirm that they hadn’t all decided to call it a day, but the bulk of the camera work was focused on Roelandts battling against the elements alone and the machinations of the chasing group as Debusschere enjoyed a free ride and Etixx teammates Terpstra and Vandenbergh tried to work out a winning strategy. Roelandts cushion to his pursuers evaporated as he blew up under a combination of the final climbs and a head wind and with around 20kms to go the race was back together.
Over the same climbs Oss faded and fellow Italian Paolini who had been the last rider to make it across looked as if he was losing the tow as well. Out of all of the riders in the group however Paolini is blessed with the kind of smarts that will make him a formidable DS in the future. Thomas looked as if he was just holding on, understandably after his win less than 48 hours earlier and Vanmarcke and Debusschere didn’t look as if they had much fight left in them either. Thus Etixx found themselves in a similar position to one they have found themselves in a few times this season; a numerical advantage but seemingly no idea of how to make it count. Whether or not Paolini sensed the indecision or just decided to go for it I don’t know, but he attacked and then spent the remainder of the race in the big ring while Terpstra and Vandenbergh wondered what had happened.
Paolini celebrated ‘his greatest win’ by humbly admitting that he would be back working for Alexander Kristoff in the Ronde next weekend. Terpstra shook his head as he crossed the line, partly in disbelief at how he and his teammate had thrown away a potential victory and (also) no doubt anticipating an almighty bollocking from Patrick Lefevere later that night. Under the circumstances there was no disgrace in finishing third for Thomas. Roelandts, arguably the ‘man of the match’ managed a rueful smile as he beat the peloton home in 7th.
I was completely gripped by Gent Wevelgem to the extent that next Sunday’s Ronde is going to have to been something special for me to rank it above yesterday’s race. Even Mrs VCSE was sucked in by the drama and it takes a lot to drag her away from her smartphone. Unpredictable conditions, a plucky underdog, an engrossing tactical battle and a worthy and likeable winner. This race had it all. If you didn’t manage to see it Eurosport will probably show a highlights package of sorts up to the start of the 3 days of De Panne on Tuesday afternoon. After that seek it out on YouTube. You will be glad that you did.
* feature image is the key Kemmelberg climb in Gent Wevelgem from a previous year’s race
If ever there’s a race to follow a script, at least as far as when something actually happens it’s got to be Milan San Remo. Every year there’s a rumour of, if not an actual route change to be implemented with the intention of making the race easier / harder for sprinters / climbers. And if the parcours is changed you can be pretty much certain that it won’t make the slightest difference and it will be fine to go to the garden centre (it’s a UK thing) or have dinner with the family and tune in when the race reaches the Cipressa.
And so it goes that the 2015 variety of MSR followed the script pretty much to the letter. Sure the key incidents were specific to this years edition but we could have easily foregone an hour or so of super slow motion rain jacket removal or watching riders going through the musettes.
OK, so if you had tuned in with 25km to go you would have missed the crash on a wet descent that took out one of the Sky team and allowed Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift to go clear of the peloton. They mopped up the last of the break but were caught by some determined chasers including Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar as they climbed the Cipressa. Sky were ostensibly working for Swift, but it’s hard to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have had the green light to go for the win too. It was the Welshman who launched the last forlorn attack of the day on the Poggio with van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss for company. With those two caught on the descent it was down to a sprinters selection to contest the win on the Via Roma (the 2015 route change natch).
There were some choice names here too; last years winner and arguably race favourite Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Bling Matthews and Paris Nice stage winner Davide Cimolai. I signed off my last post with the prediction that Sagz wouldn’t do anything in MSR and so it proved; fourth place is not what Oleg Tinkoff expects (more of which later). My money was on Kristoff after he got back into the leading group with the help of the smartest guy in the peloton Luca Paolini. But who surfed the wheels from way back to deny them all? John Degenkolb, the Mr Versatile of the sprinters (this is the guy who finished on the podium at Paris Roubaix last year). OK, he was hardly long odds for MSR but I don’t remember him winning from so far back before. It’s a great win and should give Degenkolb equal billing at Giant alongside Marcel Kittel now (if he didn’t have it already).
I wonder if the result doesn’t have implications for another Giant rider. Warren Barguil has struggled since his breakthrough stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta. His situation reminds me a little of Mark Cavendish’s short stay at Sky, albeit they’re different types of rider. If Barguil is going to develop as a stage racer and certainly a grand tour rider it’s hard to see how he can do this at Giant, which is a team that is to all intents and purposes predicated as a sprint outfit. Much as I think Giant would want to keep him I can’t help wondering if Barguil would do better elsewhere. Dave Brailsford has talked about winning the Tour with a French rider, might Barguil fit the Sky mould?
Since Ben Swift claimed the final podium spot in last years MSR he’s been touted as a classics rider. When the Sky threesome went clear I thought he had a great opportunity to win the race solo if he could have used Rowe and then Thomas to leap frog over the final two climbs. This would have relied on the rest of the peloton to wave the metaphorical white flag perhaps, but it looked like Swift didn’t really have the legs in the sprint either. Classics wise Sky are now in worse position than they were a year ago. Ian Stannard may have repeated his Het Nieuwsblad win from 12 months ago but the teams MSR result is disappointing in comparison. Sky really need a result in the Ronde or Roubaix to show that they have taken a step forward in one day racing.
Volta Catalunya 2015
I could have been forgiven for thinking I had tuned in to one of the US races so bad was the television feed from the Volta Catalunya (they seem to have dropped the ‘a’ in 2015) this week. The weather hasn’t been all that but we lost an entire ‘live’ broadcast yesterday (stage 2). There was a silver lining in that I didn’t have to see an Alejandro Valverde stage win though.
It’s been quite a fun race so far. The peloton completely messed up the time gaps to the three man break on stage 1 allowing CCC rider Maciej Paterski to take the win and the best part of a 3 min lead on GC. It was as you were GC wise after stage 2 and then the big hitters started to emerge today on stage 3.
Chris Froome has returned to racing after missing Tirreno Adriatico through illness and based on today’s performance he’s still not quite there. Froome had only Richie Porte left for support on the final climb as Tinkoff took advantage of several crashes on the descent of the penultimate climb to do some damage to the peloton. Bjaarne Riis has been suspended from Tinkoff for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (there’s a good article about that here) although Sagan’s result in MSR has been suggested as the catalyst. Alberto Contador looked in good shape today, almost back to his stage win earlier this season in the Ruta del Sol as far I was concerned.
The Contador group that led into Girona included Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Garmin Cannondale pair Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. While Contador seemed most concerned with Porte taking his turn on the front (Aru and Uran knew their place and rode when they were told to), no one seemed to be taking much notice of AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. He attacked as the group reached the outskirts of town and by the time anyone had decided to respond it was already to late and Pozzovivo had a relatively easy win after a preceding hard 155 kms.
Paterski relinquished his race lead to Pierre Rolland who may well lose the leaders jersey in turn tomorrow on the queen stage to La Molina tomorrow. The big names are around 2.20 back on Rolland and Froome isn’t so far away another 20 seconds or so behind. If he can come back the way he did after Contador took his (Ruta del Sol) stage win earlier this year with one of his own at the same event, the GC could be Froome’s for the taking. There are plenty of other names in the mix though and tomorrow’s stage is likely to be a good one. Let’s hope they sort out the TV pictures.
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.
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.
Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.
Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.
While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.
Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.
So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.
Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.
We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.
Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.
His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.
Sky upset the ASO applecart
With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.
The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?
In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.
With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?
Valverde – pas normale?
After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.
So the Giro is the first grand tour of the year and with that a slightly different spin on the Racing Digest. The Digest is normally put together on a Sunday (or Monday latest) to reflect on the previous weeks racing or for the classics the same day. The challenge with a grand tour and even with some stage races is to try and reflect the big stories without missing the fractional elements that can later be described as ‘this was the moment when..’ etc. For now, we’re going to continue with the weekly post but this will be a compilation of the notes made on the actual day of the stage. This might lead to the kind of unforeseen circumstances where a rider can be described as super strong on one day, only to be out of contention the next. For a stage by stage narrative VCSE thinks it will make more sense to leave the notes on each stage unedited each day, instead of applying hindsight perspective at the end of the week.
Is this the right approach? If you would like to see daily grand tour updates please comment at the foot of the post.
As promised in the Giro preview VCSE will also be posting Giro highlights on our dedicated playlist. Where possible we will use footage with commentary in English but in some cases the best footage available is the official Giro video and this has Italian comms only. The playlist can also be viewed at the foot of the post.
Giro Stage 3 – Sorrento to Marina di Ascea
The Giro’s fourth longest stage at 222km is just an aperitif for the second longest the day after. Leaving Sorrento Eurosport picked up the live feed before the stages two principal climbs sparing VCSE 70k’s of mostly straight roads (good choice!).
The peloton had chased down the break by the start of final climb at Catona. Maglia Rosa Salvatore Puccio was minutes down at this point but the main contenders were all at the head of the race. Ryder Hesjedal looked super strong and made a solo break on the climb but sat up pretty quickly, perhaps just laying down a marker. The race got really animated on the descent. When a rider in the Kazak turquoise sped off everyone thought; Nibali. But no, it was Agnoli closely followed by Hesjedal. Hesjedal’s attack on the climb, followed by him leading on the descent fermented debate that went from pure speculation to pretty well informed. Garmin have ex pro Charly Wegelius as DS for the Giro and Twitter stalwart and Garmin owner Jonathan Vaughters pointed out that the safest place to be on a descent is often out front.
As the race came together again Het Nieuwsblad winner Luca Paolini pushed on. As opportunistic a win as his sub zero semi classic earlier in the year Paolini was more concerned with celebrating his victory than taking time off the rapidly closing pack. Nevertheless his advantage at the line (plus time bonuses) was enough to put him into the leaders jersey. On a satorial note Paolini’s win was the first in a grand tour for the new style of ‘aero’ helmets* (well since the late 80’s). Most people have accepted the ‘science’ that there’s some kind of performance advantage to wearing one but are equally in agreement that they are not a good look.
With additional time bonuses on offer for the first finishers there was something to Paolini’s pursuers still to race for. Winner of the bunch sprint for non sprinters was.. Cadel Evans! A canny result and a few of the BMC leaders critics silenced. Evans remained outside the top 10 on GC but there’s lots of racing left. The biggest loser on the day was Lampre’s Michele Scarponi, losing his front wheel and ending up at the side of the road with a broken rear mech for his trouble. Your worst nightmare as a GC rider becoming reality and shared with a global television audience. Scarponi can shrug off the road rash but will need to dig deep to make up the time.
Bradley Wiggins remained in second, 17 seconds down on Paolini maintaining his 14 second advantage on Nibali. Hesjedal rode himself back into contention and was only 3 seconds down on Nibali in seventh.
*This may or may not be a fact. VCSE hasn’t seen one of the ugly things cross a line first this year but we are open to correction!
Giro stage 4 – Policastro Bussentino to Serra San Bruno
With the benefit of hindsight this was probably not the best stage to watch live. Picking up the race with around 100 kilometres to go the remainder of the stage was run along the coast on pretty much entirely straight roads until the final two climbs at 40km from the line. Was the modern black top following the route of some ancient Roman road? We weren’t enlightened and made do with spotting ‘things you can see in the peloton’ for the first hour or so of Eurosport’s coverage. Even the moto’s were looking for ways to keep themselves amused and we were treated to an upside down shot of the field at one point. With Paolini in the Maglia Rosa, Sky were happy to let another team do the work on the front for a change and Katusha put in a big effort. Wiggins was able to sit back in the pack and catch up with Cavendish; cue much conversation on social media about whether or not Cav would be asking about the leadership at the Tour this year.
There was an early break which included the Giro’s first ever Greek entrant; Euskatel’s Ioannis Tamouridis. The main excitement this caused was when Androni’s Emanuele Sella was unceremoniously sent back to the peloton in disgrace for daring to take the virtual GC lead. The stage came back together with around 40km to go as the road began to climb properly. There were a number of brave solo efforts on the stage that warrant a mention. Euskatel’s Miguel Minguez Ayala managed to stay away the longest out of the original break, despite being handicapped at one point by his DS’s bizarre decision to hand him half a dozen bidons. As the final climb wound its way up around near 180 degree hairpins AG2R’s Sylvain George made a bid for a glory gaining nearly a minute twenty at one stage.
These two solo’s were topped by Vini Fantini veteran Danilo Di Luca (he does have an older teammate actually) who showed some class to get over the summit with something to spare and then provided a lesson in how to descend at speed in very wet conditions. It was always going to be touch and go for Di Luca to take the win and he bowed to the inevitable with a few hundred metres left and was overhauled by the group that included Paolini, Evans and Hesjedal.
The irony for Di Luca and Vini Fantini was that the stage was won by another Italian from a pro-conti team, this time a rider at the start of their career: Bardiani Valvolve’s Enrico Battaglin. A big win for the team after losing a major sponsor last year and a massive one for the rider. Paolini could look forward to another day in pink, but the big GC mover was Nibali who recovered from a late wheel change and picked up 17 seconds on Wiggins who dropped to 6th on the same time as Hesjedal*. Cadel Evans, who was in the mix at the finish picked up more places and moved into the top 10, 42 seconds down.
* Wiggins got caught up in someone else’s crash with less than 3km to go. Ordinarily he would have been awarded the same time as the group he had been in (Paolini etc.) but transponder info suggested Wiggins had already been dropped by the leading group at this point. The time lost could be crucial over a 3 week race.
Giro Stage 5 – Cosenza to Matera
A similar profile to the previous days stage albeit shorter by 40 kilometres. The penultimate climb at Montecaglioso wasn’t worthy of a profile in the road book but proved enough of a challenge to shell some of the big names in sprinting. Beforehand the stage was at its most animated at the finish in Matera as torrential rain turned the finish straight into a fast flowing river.
There was a break up ahead but the peloton were in a relaxed mood on pretty much straight roads. The lack of action provided ample opportunity to discuss the ‘controversy’ of Bradley Wiggins losing time on yesterdays stage. Wiggins later admitted that he had been gapped on the run in which meant that one of the more lurid theories, Rigoberto Uran in league with Nibali to upset his team leader, could be discounted.
The English TV feed has featured a DS from each of the teams speculating on what types of rider the day’s stage will favour. Today’s representative Dirk Demol of Radioshack fancied a sprint finish and as the break was reeled in ahead of the final climbs it was the sprinters teams leading the chase. The best laid plans of Omega Pharma and Orica Greenedge fell apart going up Montecaglioso. Mark Cavendish, despite the attentions of three teammates was reduced to riding zigzags as the peloton split apart.
The riders had endured a downpour of their own at this point and the run in the finish in the hilltop town of Matera was still wet. With a series of 90 degree corners into the final uphill finish there was always the chance of a crash. The final bend featured rather more white road markings than you would choose if you had to take them at speed in the wet. One of John Degenkolb’s Argos Shimano lead out was down and in trying to avoid him another (larger) crash ensued. On the finishing straight it looked for a moment that a Bardiani rider was going to take another win but Degenkolb who had avoided the carnage too overtook and was a clear winner at the line. After yesterdays win by one of the new generation of pros; Battaglin it was fantastic to see Degenkolb take his first win since his anti doping statement issued last weekend.
With the final corner crash occurring within 3km of the finish the same time was applied to all finishers in the first group and with no splits the GC did not change from yesterday so Luca Paolini remains in pink for a third day.
Giro Stage 6 – Mola di Bari to Margherita di Savioa
A plan flat stage run on arrow straight roads in warm sunshine had the the peloton in end of term mood. One for the sprinters then, but John Degenkolb didn’t figure today, perhaps the Argos tactic will be to wait for something a bit more lumpy. So the contest would be between Cavendish and chief rivals; Bouhanni, Goss and Viviani.
Some scenes from the first 130 kilometres. Taylor Phinney in recovery mode at the back of the peloton performing the now obligatory ‘let’s do something amusing with the new Giro aero helmet’ with one of the Garmin riders. Not intentionally so, but much funnier were the three riders whose misplaced route saw them on the wrong side of some impressive looking central reservation barriers. The televison director delighted in providing lingering pull back shots from the helicopter to illustrate the hopelessness of their situation. Likely to find themselves needing to dodge oncoming traffic when the closed section of carrigeway was reopened the three eventually surrendered at the feed station and clambered over after handing their bikes over first.
The all Australian breakaway of Cameron Wurf (yes, him again) and Jack Bobridge (Blanco) were reeled in as the stage entered its criterium phase with two laps of a circuit around Margherita di Savioa. Taking in a tight turn before a narrow finishing straight a big crash involving most of the rear of the peloton created a real brain teaser as mechanics worked out how to unpick the interlocked riders and bikes from the pile blocking the road. Caught up in this was most of Team Sky who had gone back to escort Bradley Wiggins after a bike change. As the other teams realised that unblocking the road and matching bikes to riders was going to take some time, shuttle diplomacy began at the head of the race as riders with teammates back in the crash took turns to slow the peloton down. There’s a link to video of the crash below.
Things had sorted themselves out as the final lap started. Wiggins mindful of what had happened a few kilometres earlier and of the 17 seconds lost on stage 4 provided the lead out for the sprinters until the race entered the final straight. It’s an aside, but seeing Wiggins like this; really pushing for the line, is a reminder of just how good he looks on a bike. With a big look of his shoulder to confirm that, yes he had gone under the 3km banner Wiggins relaxed guaranteed the same time as the first finisher.
And first over the line wasn’t really in much doubt as Mark Cavendish had Omega Pharma teammates in front of him. Unlike stage one, Cavendish didn’t really have to work for this one, only launching when the line was in touching distance. Elia Viviani was second again, but convincingly beaten this time. With Matt Goss third, the rider bashing the bars on the line was Nacer Bouhanni of FDJ who had been blocked on the run in. With no change in the GC Paolini retained the Maglia Rosa.
Giro Stage 7 – San Salvo to Pescara
Saturday’s individual time trial was meant to be the day when the Giro really started. Instead it was Friday’s stage to Pescara on a hilly route through the Abruzzo region that served up the drama. With no more than a category three climb to deal with the 177 kilometre stage could have been seen as fairly innocuous, but this is a part of Italy often crossed by the Tirreno Adriatico and what the hills lack in size they make up for gradient. For this stage changeable weather conditions added to the potential for error, unforced or otherwise, that could derail the GC chances of any of the main contenders.
With a six man break up the road including Lotto’s Adam Hansen the peloton were happy to let locally sponsored Vini Fantini do the work at the front. With one rider in contention for the GC and a local rider in Danilo Di Luca early expectations where for Vini Fantini to try for the stage win. For Maglia Rosa Luca Paolini this was a virtual last stage of the race as he fully expected to lose the lead after the time trial. Planning to ride the stage “..like a one day race” Paolini entertained hopes of retaining the leaders jersey for one more day.
As the break away began to ride into the showery weather there were more and more riders sliding off on a combination of hairpin descent and greasy road surfaces. The climbs were having an impact too with the break fragmenting and the peloton shelling riders out the back with regularity. With 20km left Adam Hansen, one of handful of riders to have ridden all three grand tours in a single year was alone after his last breakaway companion crashed. Riders were attempting to escape the peloton with varying degrees of success as the lead group became strung out on the climb.
With around a 4km descent after the final climb it was no surprise to see Vicenzo Nibali attempt to get away from his rivals. The favourites had got up the last climb with varying levels of support as team members had fallen away after doing their turn. Sky had looked less organised than normal, seldom running at the front and Uran falling off after touching Wiggins wheel at one point. Watching Hansen on the same roads minutes earlier it was clear that the descent was sketchy. First, Nibali slid off on a bend but he was back on his bike within seconds. Wiggins someway back negotiated this corner without difficulty, but came to grief on a hairpin further down. Getting back on slowly, he was all alone by the time he reached the bottom of the hill such was his speed in comparison to the other riders. As the road levelled out Wiggins began to push the pedals again and rediscovered his teammates who prepared to pull him to the finish.
While all of this was happening Adam Hansen was crossing the line for a fantastic solo win. In the break for nearly 150km and on his own for the last 20km for VCSE this was the win of the first week. Chapeau! The chasing group came in over a minute down but included Evans, Hesjedal and Nibali. It also included the new Maglia; Benet Intxausti of Movistar who had been ‘sitting’ unobtrusively in 3rd place @ 26 seconds since stage 4. Nibali moved into second with Hesjedal third. Evans cemented his place in the top 10 and Robert Gesink moved into the top 10 from 12th.
And Wiggins? 23rd place @1.32. The plan must have been to not lose any time on his rivals today so that he could press home his advantage over them in the time trial on Saturday. Instead there is the real possibility that any time gained will be needed just to get back on terms with Nibali. Added to the 17 seconds ‘lost’ on stage 4 it’s fair to say it hasn’t been a great week for Sky, with the result in the TTT on Ischia squandered through mostly bad luck, but potentially some tactical errors too. Wiggins has often found himself alone after a problem and the team have appeared to be slow to react. At least Wiggins will know that, barring a mechanical, what happens in stage 8 is down to him. In the time trial you’re racing against yourself as much as the other riders on the road and it’s not known as the ‘race of truth’ for nothing.
VCSE will have more updates after the weekends stages with a rest day coming up on Monday. Check out our YouTube channel for a dedicated playlist with all of the action from week 1.
Lucy Garner wins Stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming
Argos Shimano had more than one thing to celebrate this week with Britain’s double world champion Lucy Garner winning stage 1 of the Tour of Chongming in China. Still only 18, Lucy out sprinted Emma Johansson and Shelley Olds to take the win.
The photo (from Argos Shimano) really captures Lucy’s elation at her victory; seeing a rider without their sunglasses in this case really helps to communicate the emotion and excitement she was feeling. Speaking afterwards Garner said; “I’m so happy I took the win today”
Yet another women’s world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle Honda took the second stage in bad weather with the final stage to be run in criterium format.