No Fairytales in ‘Hell’

Tour of Flanders & Paris Roubaix 2016

Mixed emotions. Matthew Hayman, 37 years old, erstwhile Rabobank, Sky and now Orica Green Edge domestique / road captain. Aussie transplanted to Flanders and a seemingly perennial fixture in the breakaway in the last few editions of the ‘Hell of the North’. A pro’s pro, just had another couple of years tacked onto the contract that was supposed to be his last. This year’s Paris Roubaix his first race back after an early season crash had seen him miss most of the Flandrian classics. Of all the races to come back in; the one he loves most of all. The one he has dreamed of winning, never quite believing that he could.

Tom Boonen - Denied!
Tom Boonen – Denied!

Tom Boonen, classics superstar. Past his best? Maybe. Many predict that this year could be his last, certainly his last chance at adding to his tally of victories in the Ronde and Roubaix. Another win in Paris Roubaix would make him the all time leader with five cobble trophies on his mantelpiece.

With those back stories you could have been happy with an outcome where either rider took the win. But then no one would have predicted a Mat Hayman victory when the race got under way last Sunday; probably not even Hayman himself.

You could have got odds of 800/1 to Matthew Hayman even after he got into the breakaway. After all, no one really expects the break to survive right? There might have been an omen in another unfancied rider getting a top ten finish in Flanders the previous weekend, but we’ll return to him later. Hayman was still attracting decent odds after he managed to survive the catch and hang with a pretty stellar group of chasers that included Boonen alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard.

A rider definitely on his swansong Fabian Cancellara had been in the group behind Boonen’s alongside Peter Sagan. Over the last few years Cancellara, especially when he’s fit and on form was always a threat for the win. He had suffered with injuries last year but entering his final season he had made it clear that Flanders and Roubaix where his big targets. Denied by an inspired solo attack the week before in Belguim I anticipated Cancellara getting his own back last weekend. I didn’t see Boonen as a contender, any more so than Hayman in fact. That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to see Boonen win; I have always been in team Tom rather than in team Fabs. It was just hard to see the evidence that Boonen would have the legs to ride to the win like he did in 2012.

The possibility that Boonen might be in with a shot increased when Cancellara crashed as the race went through the final cobbled sectors on the route to Roubaix. Sagan managed to avoid the crash (that’s a photo that’s worth doing a Google image search for) and Cancellara re-mounted but neither were in a position to challenge anymore.

Even when it had got down to five riders most peoples money wouldn’t have been on Hayman but he was the only rider who was able to bridge to Boonen after his late attack. Vanmarcke had attempted to solo away on a couple of occasions over the cobbles but each time he was pegged back by one of the remaining group riding him down or the whole group combining to do so.

Perhaps Boonen thought that he would be able to outsprint Hayman when the time came in the velodrome. Vanmarcke had arrived by this point and maybe Boonen was too vary of him to pay attention the the bike length that Hayman had stole from him as the race exited the final bend. Hayman threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line. It didn’t seem like such an emphatic victory as he reacted to what he had just done after he stopped. Viewed from a more sympathetic angle it became clear that this wasn’t a win by inches.

Boonen for his part seemed philosophical in defeat, suggesting that (unlike Cancellara) he might return for the classics again next year; “Why not?” he said. The trouble is, this was (probably) his best (if not final) chance of winning Paris Roubaix for a fifth time. Since his last win he has either been injured or unable to make the key breaks in the race. Four years have inevitably taken their toll. I think the Boonen of 2012 would have finished the race the same way he did then in 2016 but this version cannot reach those heights now. Tom Boonen won’t be around in 2020 anymore than Mat Hayman and perhaps Boonen’s enigmatic smile on the Roubaix podium reflected the realisation that his best chance of winning had been snatched from him by the least likely of victors.

If Roubaix didn’t produce the perfect fairytale ending you could argue the Flanders managed it nicely. Peter Sagan had won solo the previous weekend in Gent Wevelgem and did the same in the Ronde to deny Fabian Cancellara a farewell victory. Sagan accepts that other riders won’t work with him in a way that Cancellara has never seemed to manage and he seemed equally at ease about the ‘curse’ of the rainbow jersey that so many commentators love to cite anytime any world champion cyclist fails to win in the stripes. If you believe in such things (along with unicorns I suppose), Sagan put that to bed in Gent and looked the strongest he has ever been in the Ronde.

There was a nice symmetry in both world champions winning their respective editions of the race. Lizzie Armitstead is starting to look like Marianne Vos as she seems to bend each race she rides to her will. Vos who returned to racing in a rather more low key event in her native Holland the same weekend will no doubt recapture the form that made her the rider to beat in the women’s peloton but right now Armitstead is the benchmark in women’s cycling.

Hardly surprising that two of the biggest races on the calendar could produce so many headline grabbing stories in the space of seven days. I’ll admit the one for me hasn’t gone completely unmissed but just in case I’m going to share it. Now the Ronde and Roubaix have something else in common besides cobbles. They’re both world tour races and as such if you’re a world tour team then you have to turn up. In previous seasons it has been reasonable to wonder if teams like Movistar would bother with the cobbled classics given half a chance to sack off races that don’t really translate that well to Spain. But this year something changed. Movistar got a rider in the break in Flanders. Not only that, when the break got caught the Movistar rider, Imanol Erviti stayed with the leading group and crossed the line 7th.

Fast forward a week to Roubaix and who’s in the break again? That man Erviti. Now in all the excitement about Mat Hayman Erviti’s 9th place finish is inevitably a bit less of a headline grabber. But here’s the thing. In these two monuments only one rider (Sep Vanmarcke) has delivered two top ten results. This isn’t to suggest that Movistar are suddenly going to be a force in the classics but Erviti’s rides deserve a bit more coverage than they are likely to get after a pair of particularly classic editions of the Ronde and Roubaix.

A couple of other mentions.. 

The new job kept me from watching Pais Vasco live but even a highlights show is enjoyable when Steve Cummings steals another win. Alberto Contador took the overall, but I just haven’t seen enough stage racing to make the call on the grand tours yet.

VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

I posted my thoughts on the Cycling News Reader Poll last year so here’s this years submission. I haven’t posted anything since the end of the Vuelta for all sorts of different reasons so there might be an end of season review feel to this post as well (maybe!).

I haven’t written about every nominee as it does feel a bit like the Cycling News team went with ten nominees for the Best Male category and then wondered if there would be a bit of a Twitterstorm if they didn’t have the same number of nominees in the other categories. While some of the nominations feel like they have been added for the sake of it, there are other categories where I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment on whether or not a riders inclusion is warranted. Either way, there won’t be pages and pages on the Mountain Bike or Cyclocross categories.

So without fanfare or drum roll here’s my picks for the 2015.

Best Male Road Rider

So the normal suspects you would expect to see in an end of year poll are hear, alongside a couple of surprises. Lets deal with those first.

Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan

Richie Porte started the year in fantastic form winning Paris Nice for the second time amongst other things and generally looking like a better rider than Chris Froome during the early part of the year. Things began to unravel at the Giro and he began to resemble the rider who hadn’t exactly thrived when he was asked to pick up the team leadership from Froome in the 2014 Tour. Porte’s results post his return to racing after the Giro were less than spectacular and he even found himself slipping in his support role to best pal Froome at the Tour. If I was filling out Porte’s report card in April he would have got a A star but ahead of what is now (probably) a make or break move to BMC in 2016 he’s probably a C minus.

Another ‘What were they thinking?’ addition to the Best Male nomination is Mark Cavendish. Cav started the year under pressure to deliver results at Etixx and ended the year with a new team. While he isn’t the only sprinter to have had a less than stellar year (Marcel Kittel anyone?) it wasn’t perhaps the return to winning ways that everyone (the rider, his team, his fans) wanted. Sure Cav notched up another Tour stage win but he was completely outshone by a resurgent Andre Griepel in terms of number of wins and by the German’s victory on the most important stage of all in Paris. Cav of course remains a massive personality in the peloton and among UK fans but even the most diehard Cav supporter would find it hard to justify his selection as the best rider.

Another early starter was Alexander Kristoff. After Flanders I asked if anyone could stop him from winning any race he chose. Well as with so many predictions there was an element of hubris and Kristoff didn’t go on to win stages at the Tour for fun. In fact other than a low key win towards the end of the year it felt as if the Katusha rider had slipped from the radar screen completely.

Perhaps the sprinter who did the best job of retaining form over the whole season was John Degenkolb. With Marcel Kittel’s catastrophic loss of form Degenkolb became the key focus for his Giant Alpecin team in 2015. That Degenkolb took his first monument in Milan San Remo was perhaps less of a surprise than him taking his second a matter of weeks later in Paris Roubaix. Unlike his rivals Degenkolb was adaptable enough to still win grand tour bunch sprints including the final day around Madrid in the Vuelta. Degenkolb, once a target for Etixx as an eventual replacement for Tom Boonen the irony is that while the team retain the shampoo brand title sponsor it is Kittel who is leaving for the Belgian outfit.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Best Male poll without the Tour winner and sure enough Chris Froome is included. I’ll credit Froomey for not quite sticking to the script this year and looking pretty ordinary on the bike until the latter stages of the Dauphine. The way that he and his Sky teammates bossed the Tour from stage 2 onwards without too much there to unsettle them deserved better than the piss that was literally poured on them in France. There was a tilt a Vuelta Tour double but that was undone by another accident that may or may not have been bought on by bike handling skills. A second Tour win for the honorary Brit is no mean achievement but no better or worse than the other grand tour winners from this year.

And what of those two? Alberto Contador won the Giro pretty much singlehanded as his Tinkoff teammates struggled to keep pace with Astana. It was pretty clear how much this had taken out of him when he was the first of the big names to really suffer in the Tour. The Giro win didn’t taste quite as sweet while struggling to keep up with Froome and co in July and it’s no surprise that Contador wants to go out with a band in France next year. Fabio Aru was up and down like a yoyo on the Giro and then later during the Vuelta but showed enough to hold on to second place in Italy and then go one better in Spain. Perhaps not the most popular winner of the Vuelta thanks to his team and the manner of the win he looks increasingly like the favoured rider at Astana.

When the BBC crown their Sports Personality each year the debate afterwards often centres less on the winners sporting success as much as are they in fact a personality. When Bradley Wiggins won in 2012 both boxes could be firmly ticked as he rocked up in a wickedly tailored suit and was pissed before the broadcast had even finished. All of that plus Britain’s first ever Tour winner and an Olympic Gold medallist to (Chelsea) boot! Froome the following year wasn’t really in the running, despite Sky’s best efforts to add colour to him. Politeness doesn’t really ‘sell’. Peter Sagan started the year unable to win. I wondered if the pressure of his multi million dollar contract at Tinkoff was having an effect. A trip to the US for the Tour of California where they LOVE him provided the rejuvination and while there wasn’t a win at the Tour the green jersey was duly claimed. It was the end of season single handed win at the world championships that delivered the result that Oleg Tinkoff’s millions demanded but it was the return of Sagan’s sense of fun in post stage interviews at the Tour that cements him as my pick for Best Male rider of 2015.

Best Male Team

Fortunately Cycling News allow us a choice. Don’t fancy any of their nominee’s? Pick one of your own. And that’s what I have done with my Best Male Team selection.

MTN Qhubeka might not have been the winningest team of 2015. In fact they didn’t pick up masses of victories full stop, but it was the significance of what they achieved this year that makes them my pick for Best Male Team.

Bringing Brian Smith on board as General Manager saw the team step up a gear with a number of high profile signings and key changes in equipment to become one of the most distinctive outfits in the peloton. A stage win in the Tour and the Vuelta and Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the overall at the Tour of Britain were the arguably bigger wins than the KOM jersey at the Dauphine but more importantly that was won by a black African rider: Daniel Teklehaimanot. Smith has the challenge of continuing to get the best out of an ageing team of ‘big’ names like new addition Cavendish and promoting the best of the African riders. If he can do this it could be one of the most important components of cycling becoming a more diverse and genuinely global sport.

Best Female Road Rider

Lizzie Armitstead. No contest really. It might be a little bit churlish to say that Marianne Vos being injured for most of the season gave Lizzie a clear run but that would be pretty disrespectful to a talented core of riders within the women’s pro peloton just as much as it would be disrespectful to Lizzie.

Winning the world cup for the second year in a row demonstrated her form over the course of the season and the world championships was the icing on the cake. More importantly the way that she rode the race in 2015 showed that she had learnt the lessons of 2014 and didn’t let a winning position slip. The pressure will be on now (not least from a tendency to big up GB medal hopes by lazy journo’s) for a gold medal in the Olympic road race in Rio next year. The course doesn’t suit her but if anyone has the mental ability to overcome that it’s Lizzie Armitsead.

Best Women’s Team

Boels Dolmans might seem like the obvious choice. They’re Lizzie Armitstead’s team as well as the berth for riders like Evelyn Stevens. But my pick for Best Women’s team would be Velocio SRAM. The team emerged from the remains of the Specialized Lululemon squad that announced it was folding at the end of the 2014 season. Initally crowd funded the team were ultimately received backing from Cervelo and SRAM for the 2015 season. For various reasons the team in this incarnation is no more and the riders had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a team for next year while there was still part of this year’s races to complete. It says a lot about this group of riders that they were still one of the winningest teams in the women’s peloton in 2015 and rounded off the season with the TTT world championship.

Keep reading for the rest of the VCSE winners here

Continue reading VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

Swiss Timing

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

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

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

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

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

Commonwealth Games cycling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de France 2014 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: “ 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour of California 

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

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

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

Women’s Tour 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The all encompassing end of season round up – World Championships and UCI Election

2013 World Championships – Tuscany 

It’s been a while since our last post where Wiggo and Cav were leaving home shores to support Chris Froome in his tilt at the world championships in Tuscany. Ahead of that Sir Brad was heading for his seasons goal (if we all forget about the Giro) of the individual time trial. Would he assist Froome in the road race a few days later and what exactly would Cavendish be doing, other than proudly representing his country.

Individual Time Trial

VCSE isn’t aware if there was a representative from every nation on the globe at this years world championships, but in the category for ‘country with quite a lot going on at the moment..’ Syria managed to enter a rider in the men’s Elite TT on the fourth day of the week long cycling festival in the Tuscan hills. Nazir Jaser propped up the field in 77th place, which isn’t the point really. While you ask, “How does he manage to train?”, if not where it’s worth noting that last place was only a shade over 15 minutes behind the winning time of Tony Martin and his average speed over the 57.86km course was nearly 43kph. We will never know if would have beaten the two Ugandan entrants as unfortunately they did not start.

English: 2011 UCI Road World Championships – M...
World Champion – Tony Martin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The much trailed match up between the (relative) elder statesmen of the test, Wiggins and Cancellara, was won by the Englishman. This was the undercard though; Tony Martin was the man to beat from the earliest of time checks and Wiggins second place suggested both riders were peaking at just the right time. Cancellara had opted not to take time information (neither had Wiggins), but the battle for second and third places seemed to come down to his fast out of the starters hut approach verses Wiggins slow(er) build to a peak in the final quarter.

Wiggins has been less bullish as the sands of this years racing have ebbed away and seems more comfortable with the fact that he has been beaten by the better man, at least in terms of performance on the bike by Martin and perhaps psychologically earlier this year by Froome as he lost his number one status at Sky.

Cancellara had bested Martin in the Vuelta as Wiggins in turn had beaten the Radioshack rider in Poland shortly after the Tour. The edge that each protagonist sought over his rivals ebbed and flowed as the main event approached. There is a sense of drama, even in what is to some people the dullest of cycling disciplines when watching Wiggins or Cancellara. Martin however is a metronome, even if below the skinsuit and aero helmet the physical and mental toll is playing just as viscerally for him.

As Martin took more than 15 minutes out of our Syrian friend Jaser so he took the best part of a minute out of Cancellara and Wiggins. The Sky rider who had gone to Tuscany to win announced that he was “..happy with second”. Watching Tony Martin that day who could have doubted he meant it.

Women’s Road Race 

As it must have been when Eddy Merckx was at his peak Marianne Vos’ name on the start sheet casts a long shadow over the rest of the field. That she began the Elite Women’s Road Race as favourite was unsurprising. Of more interest as the race started was the race strategy of some teams to deploy almost their entire teams to try and beat the dominant rider in the field.

First the Americans and as the race reached the final stages the Italian team attempted to set a pace to try and split the field and tire out, if not Vos then her Dutch teammates. The climbs that suggested the possibility of a GC contender taking the men’s race the following day played their part in the womens’s race also as the sole remaining US rider Evelyn Stevens attacked on the penultimate climb. This wasn’t the final ascent of the Mur de Huy in the 2012 Fleche Wallone and the small advantage gained was soon gathered in by the remaining group.

Arguably it was the Italians who held the most cards, with three riders the largest group by nationality in the selection. But it was Vos who attacked on the final Salviati climb a short, straight and steep ribbon of freshly laid tarmac covered in so many fan’s messages they had become almost indecipherable. The ease with which Vos reached, overtook and then rode away from her rivals left you wondering if you had just seen every other rider drop the heads and concede the race there and then. There had been no shortage of effort thus far and the selection contained some of the greatest female riders currently racing. Did the fact that she made it look so easy, so effortless sow an immediate seed of self doubt that Vos could not be beaten.

You cannot dislike Marianne Vos, despite her dominance. Her joy as she crossed the line was not because of the margin or nature of her victory. In her mind this was another milestone, a back to back world title. Her search for the next milestone may take her into other disciplines next year (mountain biking is rumoured), but surely the next challenge for the road would be a hat-trick of rainbow jerseys on the road.

Men’s Road Race

Helicopter and wide angle tracking shots were not in evidence or in fact possible for Sunday’s Elite Men’s Road Race. The heavy rain that had characterised much of the Giro created conditions that meant that the selections and abandonments from the peloton came on each of the ten laps of the Florentine circuit the women had raced the day before.

Mark Cavendish’s role was of hare to the hounds of the peloton the strategy of the British team and those countries protecting a GC type rider to try and exhaust the classics specialists like last years champion Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara. The pace, perhaps more so the weather, led to the early abandonment of many of the field as riders got dropped and decided it was infinitely preferable to be inside and wearing something other than sodden cycling gear. Chris Froome’s tilt at the title was possibly not as serious as he suggested, although he hadn’t shown much form on his return to racing in the continental US. Ultimately, the entire GB squad got off their bikes and the suggestion afterwards that the race had been used as preparation for the Olympics two years hence was as welcome as the Italian weather. A Froome in better form might have been able to freelance to a better place, even if a win was unlikely.

The win was taken by this years medium mountain specialist, the winner of the Tour de Suisse and two stages at the Tour Rui Costa. He had been in a the select group of riders left contesting the race on the final lap that also included his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Valverde’s compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez. There was almost an even split of GC to classics riders with Gilbert and Cancellara joined by Peter Sagan and Simon Clarke.

As with the women’s race the day previously the Italian’s had some strength in numbers as the finish approached and Nibali seemed well placed if not in a position to dominate the selection. If anything there was an echo of his performances in the Vuelta where he seemed to lack that final 5% that had made him so strong in the Giro. Would this have told at the line? No, Nibali slipped off in the wet and was left to contest a placing. Ahead Rodriguez had attacked and was doing his approximation of time trialing to the finish with Costa in pursuit. Purito might have expected fellow countryman Valverde to cover Costa. Although they were trade teammates at Movistar, Costa had already announced a one year deal with Lampre. Surely, Valverde wouldn’t be complicit in letting Costa catch Rodriguez? Costa had shown his strength in the final kilometres of a race in France in July and he reached Rodriguez’s wheel with time to spare. The little Spaniard and the Portuguese engaged in conversation. It’s not unknown for one rider to offer an inducement (read bribe) at this point to throw the race. Purito may just have enquired if Valverde had put up any fight at all to prevent Costa from getting away.

Based on the relative ease with which Costa had caught him it wasn’t much of a surprise that the seemingly perennial runner up Rodriguez continued his run of podiums while Costa took the win. Purito, who can seem happier with a second or third than many race winners was more subdued this time, a mixture of bafflement and frustration with third place man Valverde. Nibali was an anticlimatic fourth with a “disappointed” Cancellara rounding out the top ten, one place behind last years winner Gilbert.

Brian Cookson wins UCI presidency

The world championships coincided with the UCI presidential elections, also held in Tuscany so delegates could be reminded of what it’s all meant to be about. VCSE hasn’t covered much of the political side of the sport and won’t subject you, the dear reader, to much more than a summary here.

Incumbent Pat McQuaid had been on shaky ground ever since the USADA ‘reasoned decision’ that led to Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban and stripping of his Tour titles. Even if McQuaid’s handling of the Armstrong affair in particular and the wider question of doping in the sport had been blemish free he couldn’t escape his associations with the Armstrong era. His position was further undermined by the impressive grassroots campaign to overturn his presidential nomination in Ireland and the subsequent messy attempts to get an endorsement from other nations.

Brian Cookson had emerged as his rival after initally endorsing McQuaid. Cookson’s campaign looked well managed in comparison to McQuaid’s, but concerns surfaced about Cookson’s tactics as the contest drew closer. Ultimately, cycling decided on at least the appearance of a break from the past. The rise in prominence of the sport in the UK during Cookson’s time at the helm of British Cycling would be good news for potential sponsors if he is able to raise the profile of cycling in an equally positive way in the next few years.

Like McQuaid, he will be judged first and foremost by how he deals with the legacy, if not the current issues of doping within the sport. Early signs are good with the promise of a closer relationship with WADA and suggestions of some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process. Cookson has shown himself to be a pragmatist by offering to reduce Armstrong’s lifetime ban in return for him lifting the lid on his doping (Armstrong, at least publically, has so far refused to name names). While Armstrong is the tip of the iceberg, it’s the lack of a coherent approach to previous and existing dopers like Danilo Di Luca that cause concern.

Should anyone caught doping get a lifetime ban? Precedent in other sports suggests not, although multiple offences equaling a life ban seem to be accepted as an appropriate response. The standards applied to ‘irregularities’ also seem inconsistent and many riders can be misplaced into the category of dopers where there can be other reasons for this. It’s interesting to compare the current situation of Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan Locke with that of Charly Wegelius for example.

If Cookson is unable to make progress on lifting the Omerta that still exists around doping during his presidency he may end up being viewed as much of poor steward of the sport as McQuaid. He will require the cooperation of the riders and the teams along with the former players, but earning that is what being a politician and administrator is all about surely?

He has at least shown signs of increased support for women’s cycling with the appointment of Tracey Gaudry to Vice President. The introduction of a 2.1 category women’s Tour of Britain from 2014 offers the prospect of a more equal footing for the women’s professional peloton, but more needs to be done to deliver marquee events alongside the men, with a high profile stage race in France being the obvious example.

The real heroes of cycling are the heroines

The surge in the popularity and reach of women’s cycling in the UK in recent years has been driven by the successes achieved in the velodrome by riders like Victoria Pendelton. A new generation of female track cyclists repaid the investment from lottery funding by taking home several golds at the London 2012 Olympics. Sixty years ago a pair of pioneering women were achieving greatness in very different circumstances.

A recent convert to the sport, perhaps inspired by the prominent results of a Cavendish or a Wiggins, could be forgiven for thinking that Britain has always  been a hotbed of road racing talent. The opposite is true, mainly as a result of the long standing ‘ban’ imposed on mass start racing by the predecessor of today’s British Cycling. Ever the improvisers, the early cyclists with sporting desires found new ways to vent their need for competition. In the absence of a stage race or criterium, the staple of the continental rider came the race against the clock. Time Trialing remains a staple of the club riders calender, although the long distance record attempts belong to a much earlier era.

In the age of lottery funding an athlete of potential might look forward to a lengthy sabbatical from the chosen profession without the anxiety of how to pay the bills. Many of the sportsmen and women competing in the events where Britain has become very successful (read Track Cycling) move seamlessly from education to competition without the need to consider a career elsewhere. This was not always the case. Outside of sports like football, becoming a professional in your chosen sporting pastime was an end to your chances of actually competing. This was certainly the case with cycle sport after the second world war and riders who were offered a professional contract needed to accept that they would earn their keep, at least within the UK outside of sanctioned competitions.

Eileen Sheridan
Eileen Sheridan

Eileen Sheridan was a successful time trialist or tester and track racer when, in 1951,  she was approached by the Hercules cycle company about becoming a professional. She won her first national title in 1945, aged 21 and had taken several titles and records in the years that followed both against the clock and for a set distance.

Hercules were something of a trendsetter, being the first British manufacturer to sponsor a professional men’s team as well as testers like Ken Joy. Unable to race in sanctioned events, Eileen Sheridan would target the long distance UK records in particular Lands End to John O’ Groats. She was not the first female professional to attempt this and not the first woman to ride professionally for Hercules. In fact Hercules had sponsored Marguerite Wilson  to do in 1939 what they wanted Eileen Sheridan to do now and it would be Wilson’s Lands End John O’ Groats record that Sheridan would attempt to beat. Wilson’s own professional career was short lived, with war intervening in the Autumn to curtail further record breaking. It’s tempting to think that the Hercules board were just waiting for the emergence of another talented woman to allow them to pick up where they had left off.

Certainly Eileen Sheridan had been thinking of the record. She preferred longer events and was a record holder for the ’12’, the amount of miles covered in a twelve hour period. Lands End to John O’Groats or LEJOG as it is shortened is the long distance place to place event that still resonates. It’s place within contemporary cycling is often as the epic route for a charitable cause. These rides generally allow a week to complete the distance and even this timescale represents a challenge for a seasoned rider. The record breakers look to achieve the distance in a little more than two days (women) and a little less than that (men).

The time that Eileen Sheridan was attempting to beat in 1953 was Marguerite Wilson’s; two days and nearly twenty three hours for the 871 miles distance (LEJOG covers less distance now since the Forth Road bridge was not built when both attempts took place). Sheridan had beaten the record by a matter of minutes in 1952, but this was not recognised due to an arcane ruling banning publicity for an attempt prior to the start. Her equipment for the race was a Hercules badged lightweight as even her sponsor recognised that riding a stock machine would have put the diminutive Sheridan at a disadvantage. Running three gears only, she would have been unable to keep up with the pedals on a descent whilst climbing remained more of a push than a spin. The ratios were the same as Wilson had used years previously.

With sports science in its infancy Sheridan,  who had already experienced the perils of sleep deprivation prepared as well as she could. This involved a regime of hardening her contact points with surgical spirit, while breaking in saddles and riding shoes. Her diet would consist of chicken breasts, bananas and Ribena.

The start was delayed as Sheridan and her support team waited for a favourable wind and weather forecast. As things turned out the forecast was wrong and she was battered by wind and rain within a few hours of leaving Lands End. By the end of the first day she was climbing the fearsome Shap Fell in Cumbria with over four hundred miles completed. Only now did she take a rest in the accompanying support caravan, for all of fifteen minutes. More than six hundred miles were down when she needed her lights for the second night of the attempt.

Now tiredness had Sheridan in its grip. She needed to stop twice more in the next hundred miles and had snatched only twenty five minutes sleep when she was woken at 7.30am to get back on the bike. She was going to complete the ride on another bike, with a slightly lower gear to help her over the hills to come. This was the slightest concession, fatigue was now forcing her to walk her bike over the steeper climbs.

Eileen Sheridan arrived at the John O’Groats hotel around 9pm. She had completed the ride in two days, eleven hours and seven minutes*. This wasn’t the end of her ride though. In addition to setting the LEJOG record in ’39 Marguerite Wilson had continued and set the benchmark for 1,000 miles also. With less than two hours sleep Sheridan was back on her bike. The lack of rest caused her to hallucinate; she saw people she knew and talked to them and polar bears. By the morning there were local supporters to keep her going, singing songs and running beside her. Completely exhausted she fell off her bike with 4o miles to go. Her support team cut up her breakfast and fed her like a baby and needed to lift her back on. She rode the last few miles weaving uncontrollably and lapsing from laughter to tears. She arrived back at the hotel an hour into the third day of riding.

It’s a testament to Eileen Sheridan’s achievement 60 years ago that the current record, set nearly 50 years later, is less than seven hours faster. Without seeking to diminish the mark set by L E A Taylor (also the mixed tandem record holder), what Sheridan achieved on a comparatively heavy steel bike (with three gears remember) was incredible.

Hercules made the most of it portraying her as an ordinary Coventry housewife and mother, when she was anything but ordinary. What was true was that she was a professional and the record she had beaten belonged to another professional rider. That record (Wilson’s) had already been beaten before Eileen Sheridan beat it again and further. Ironically, it was another Coventry housewife and mother of two who lowered the time by four hours in 1953, just ahead of Sheridan’s attempt. Edith (Edie) Atkins was an amateur however, starting her racing career a year later than Sheridan and still racing aged 76 in time trials. She was killed on her bike in 1999.

Britain’s next female cycling star arrived at the start of the sixties, although Beryl Burton won her first significant award a year after Sheridan retired as a professional in 1956. VCSE will cover Beryl’s story in the future.

There was article about Eileen Sheridan’s record breaking in issue 33 or Rouleur Magazine (details here)

Eileen Sheridan’s own biography is available as a reprint (details here)

The writer who brought the story to life for VCSE in his own memoir ‘One more kilometre and we’re in the showers’ is Tim Hilton. The link to that book is available via our Facebook page (follow the link on the right hand side of the VCSE website).

And finally, there’s a very short clip of Eileen Sheridan on the VCSE YouTube channel (follow the links on the right hand side of the page).

* It seems appropriate to use (for example) twenty rather than 20 when listing Eileen Sheridan’s record breaking

Someone to boss Vos?

From Central Park to the Peloton – Evie Stevens

picture –

To the uninitiated it can look as if Marianne Vos is unbeatable, such is her win rate on the women’s pro tour and as we recently covered at VCSE, XC mountain biking. Vos remember has been in the sport competitively since she was a teenager and already possesses a palmares that  rider on the verge of retirement would kill for, let alone someone who probably has at least another ten years left at the highest level.

In the UK people who have become interested in the sport through the successes of the British track cycling team could be forgiven for thinking that riders have always enjoyed a clear path to international competition from an early age. In fact it was as recent as the late 90’s until there was a level of investment in track cycling in the UK that provided the platform for riders like Victoria Pendleton and more recently Laura Trott. Trott in particular benefited from the scouting that now takes place in schools up and down the country to identify potential track stars. Note that the emphasis here is on track cycling. The haul of cycling medals taken in Bejing in 2008 and London last year, in addition to many more won in world championship and world cup track events is reflective of a focus on the track that hasn’t always been shown towards the road. While the medals won on the track in Bejing grabbed most of the headlines not many remember that the first cycling gold for Britain (the first medal for the entire GB team in fact) in 2008 was won on the road by Nicole Cooke.

In pouring rain Cooke rode a superb race against a quality field that included Vos , who finished 6th, and Judith Arndt the 2004 Olympic champion. Cooke retired from road racing before the start of this season making and her open letter to the press and fans vented some of her frustrations at the differences between the way road racing is structured and perhaps more importantly funded in comparison to the men’s tour*. Cooke’s teammate in 2008  Emma Pooley has voiced similar concerns. It’s hard to imagine a rider of Pooley’s class within the men’s peloton having to deal with two of their teams collapsing through lack of sponsorship.

Cooke was perhaps Vos’ biggest rival during the late ‘noughties’ and while some of their competitors span both era’s the latest rider to try and topple Vos wasn’t even racing in 2008 despite being older by three years. Evelyn (Evie) Stevens had followed an outstanding academic career at a US Ivy League college and a spell at Oxford. From there she had gone to Wall Street leaving Lehman Brothers shortly before the bank collapsed and was working at another bank when she had her cycling epiphany. She had acquired a bike among all of the other things you accumulate when you live in a loft in Manhattan but a trip to a cycling workshop in Central Park rekindled her interest and she was soon taking on a coach.

Stevens became an amateur racer in 2009 although she can thank her sister for entering her into her first event; cyclo cross. Early on her coach found that Stevens had the power output of an elite level cyclist and as the global financial crisis began to make her question her future in banking she took the plunge to become a professional. The loft, along with the rest of the trappings of a Wall Street banker went and she was left with her bike and a bag and wondering “..what have I done?”

Turning pro in 2010 with HTC Highroad she moved to Specialized Lululemon last year following the collapse of her first team after (you’ve guessed it) they lost their sponsor. For someone who was the most successful stage race winner on the women’s world tour Stevens is also a talented time trialler winning the US national title twice and finishing runner up at last years individual world championship. Her strengths in the discipline also helped Specialized Lululemon to the team prize in Limburg. Perhaps her biggest win of the year came at the Fleche Wallone where she out climbed Vos on the Mur de Huy to win convincingly.

Absent from this years race (won by Vos, natch) due to a nasty accident in Italy Stevens showed her determination by returning and winning a stage a month later at the Gracia Orlova stage race in the Czech Republic. She finished 2nd overall this year after winning the overall in 2012 but announced herself “..back to racing, back to smiling”. No doubt disappointed to have missed the opportunity to defend her ‘classic’ Stevens will be looking to retain her stage racing titles from last year in the US and in France and perhaps to go one (or even two) places better and win the overall at the Giro Donne.

Like Marianne Vos, Evie Stevens retains a humility that belies her status as one of the top female sportswomen in the world. Like Vos the overriding sense is that she is doing what she loves and Stevens has described how her enforced absence has made her “hunger and love” for racing grow even stronger. As to who is going to be the stronger rider this year Stevens describes Vos as an “incredible athlete”. Rather like Lizzie Armitstead at last years Olympics however, Steven’s believes Vos is “human”. It will be interesting to see how the Stevens / Vos match up plays out this year. Both riders win for fun but will it be the late comer who left the world of high finance and Manhattan lofts behind for the joy of two wheels who comes out on top? What does Stevens think?

“I still haven’t found my boundary”

* The letter also covered Cooke’s views on doping in the sport


California Girl

Not content with winning the women’s Fleche Wallone on Wednesday Marianne Vos hopped on a plane and flew out to the west coast of the United States to take part in the Sea Otter Classic races. The Sea Otter event is one of the traditional curtain raisers for the mountain bike season made more high profile as the event used by the industry to showcase new models and innovation via their teams and riders. After collapsing onto her bars after winning up the climb of Mur de Huy most onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that the prospect of a transatlantic flight and less than two days recovery would have prevented Vos from competing let alone winning the short track event in California.

Not unfavourably compared to Eddy Merckx for her amazing palmares Marianne Vos is a throwback to the days when professional racers expected to take part and were expected to do well in all types of races rather than the specialists seen today. While it’s true that the women’s pro tour does not feature stage races equivalent in length to the grand tours the men race there is enough variety in the parcours the women race over to allow some specialists to emerge like Kirsten Wild.

Vos is special because she is strong across a range of disciplines and not just her ability to climb and sprint (among other strengths she has) within road racing. Where Merckx was nicknamed ‘The Cannibal’ because of a need to win for Vos it’s more that she enjoys winning.

A key rival and last years winner at Fleche Evie Stevens of Specialized Lululemon was missing from the race this year due to injury but the rider who is emerging a potential threat to the Vos train this year and in the longer term is Trofeo Alfredo Binda winner Elisa Longo Borghini who finished on the podium here.

VCSE has secured some footage of Marianne at Sea Otter. It’s a little light on race action (the track itself doesn’t look especially challenging) but you can judge for yourself how well she copes with jet lag!