VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

This is my first post since Roubaix way back in the spring. Since then I have changed jobs and i’m back working full time for the first time since I started the blog in 2013. Back then I spent the entire season watching any cycling I could ‘live’. I posted after every stage of the 2013 Giro whereas this year I didn’t do a single post about it. There have been a number of reasons for this; mostly a lack of time. I do think that you miss something following a race after the event. While many stages ‘caught’ live can be a complete bore there’s often a little thing that not everyone notices that underscores how the stage and / or race is won. There have been some changes to the schedule this year, both in terms of the calendar and the TV coverage that haven’t always been for the better. The Tour or Turkey was pretty much highlights only this year and that was a race that I enjoyed watching live. Then there’s the Tour of Poland that someone has decided would gain so much more from being scheduled to take place during the Tour de France!

Watching this years Tour I often found myself thinking that I ought to write about some of the things taking place. Cav’s yellow, GC teams invading the sprints, Froome’s panache, Sky NOT getting trolled for doping to mention just a few. I’ll get around to proof reading this review of the 2016 Tour but in the meantime…

Tour de France 2016

Signing off his review of the 2016 Tour de France and Chris Froome’s historic 3rd victory in the race David Millar said we should “..enjoy” Sky’s continuing dominance of the biggest race in cycling while it lasts. This sentiment seems to be widely held by most of the people on my social media timelines, but for this armchair pundit at least I think endure is more appropriate.

Tour de France 2016 winner – Chris Froome (yeah, I used this pic last year too

Don’t get me wrong; Sky have achieved a fourth maillot jaune in five years and that in itself is a fantastic achievement. But even if the Sky MO has evolved from the one dimensional approach employed to provide Bradley Wiggins his sole grand tour victory my heart sank when Froome assumed the race lead on stage on stage 8. Of course, only the most suspicious conspiracy theorist could suggest that Sky could have known in advance that Froome’s attack over the final climb on the stage would have resulted in him heading the GC for the remainder of the race.

Sky employed the same strategy during the Grand Depart and the early stages that had worked for them so well a year ago. A team made up of entirely of domestiques (no sprinting distractions here!) ensured that Froome was kept at the business end of the race even on sprint stages. A crash within the bunch on stage 1 led to some noises off from sprint patron (and ex Sky rider) Bernie Eisel among others criticising the GC teams for getting mixed up with the lead out trains long after the 3km cut off had been negotiated. I wonder if Mark Cavendish would have been quite so diplomatic about this particular strategy that Sky have led if he hadn’t been enjoying a renaissance and his first ever yellow jersey.

Froome was pretty much the highest place GC contender on anything that didn’t end up in a gallop before the stage into Luchon and his audacious wrong footing of his rivals over the Col de Peyresourde. Froome had departed the race when the Tour last visited the town in the Pyrenees in 2014. Chief rival that year Alberto Contador had crashed out too allowing his remaining Tinkoff teammates the opportunity to go for stage wins. Mick Rogers, in the break that day, waited until he was on the descent into town before attacking and then time trialling away for the stage win. Sky’s tactic was for Froome to attack the KOM on the penultimate climb. As the TV commentary speculated about Froome’s desire to take the polka dot jersey in addition to yellow he struck out before reaching the top of the Peyresourde and gained vital yards as Nairo Quintana fumbled with his bidon and looked around in vain for Alejandro Valverde.

If Sky can be accused of riding conservatively in defence of the GC the same can be levelled at the teams of the rival GC teams when it came to attacking. The relative form of the other pre-race favourites when the came under the spotlight can be debated further but the point at which Chris Froome won his third Tour came in those first few hundred metres of the descent into Luchon. There are many ironies in Froomes victory, not least of which is that he has shown spontaneity while his team have been anything but. It shouldn’t be discounted that there wasn’t a single stage where Froome had to go head to head with his rivals without riders like Wout Poels and Sergio Henao first administering a metaphorical beating to other teams domestiques. Despite this I don’t believe that Sky’s strength in depth was the deciding factor. One of the ex pros (I can’t remember who) invited onto ITV’s coverage of the final stage commented that we might have seen a different race if Alberto Contador hadn’t abandoned after struggling through the first week after a crash on stage 1. Maybe, maybe not. Contador’s luck was particularly bad, at least Richie Porte made the finish (and 5th overall) but he was rueing the loss of time due to a puncture in the final km’s on stage 2. Quintana, fell a long way short of pre-race expectations; a ‘virus’ was conjured up at one point to try to explain his inability to challenge Froome. Movistar’s much vaunted double team of Quintana and Valverde had no answer for Froome and Sky this time and other hopefuls were even further off the pace.

There had been speculation before the race that Astana could see a 21st century version of the rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the 1986 Tour with Vincenzo Nibali in the Badger role to Fabio Aru’s Lemond. I could use a couple of hundred words explaining how that worked out but rather than waste your time I’ll summarise; it didn’t happen. Nibali looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than the Tour and Aru was no more than a bit part player.

Yet another team supposedly offering a spicy inter team rivalry ahead of the race was BMC. Richie Porte was riding in support of Tejay Van Gardaren or joint leader depending on who you listened to or if it was a Friday or something. Porte was resigned to working for Tejay even though he was the much stronger rider until his ‘leader’ fell off the radar by which time the most the Porte could hope for was a podium place. If BMC have learnt anything from this years Tour it should be that Tejay Van Gardaren will never be a grand tour winner. Stage 2 puncture notwithstanding it would have been interesting to see if Porte could have challenged Froome if Tejay had been riding for him. One for 2017 perhaps.

Quintana ultimately did enough to get onto the podium, knocking Orica’s Adam Yates off the third step. Yates is not altogether a surprise package but his achievement suggests that there is a potential heir to Chris Froome outside of the Sky machine. Yate’s demotion may have robbed him of a podium place but he was still the winner of the young rider classification and can take some comfort that his time loss was a result of a mechanical rather than a loss of form in the final week.

If not many would have predicted two ‘home’ riders in the top 5 on GC, few people would have said that AG2R would have two riders on the Tour de France podium in three years. Romain Bardet delivered a French stage win and rode into second place on stage 19. Dave Brailsford has talked about the possibility of Sky delivering a French rider to victory in the Tour but as long as Froome is motivated to race the Tour Sky won’t be hiring a French GC rider and it’s hard to see a homegrown rider doing any better than what Bardet has achieved this year.

ASO recognise that the potential for a Sky dynasty along the lines of (whisper it) US Postal could prove detrimental for the Tour ‘brand’. The idea of 8 man teams was mooted today as a possible handicap to the Sky train (the team have finished this years race with the nine riders who started in Normandy three weeks ago). Others have talked about salary caps and a ‘draft’ for up and coming riding talent but it’s hard to see how such tinkering will upset the Sky juggernaut, at least where the Tour is concerned.

There’s another irony that this is the first year where Sky’s dominance of the GC at the Tour hasn’t been accompanied with accusations about doping. This, of itself, is a good thing although I am a little surprised given that Sky have made their opponents look so ordinary. The insights of the peloton have been notable in this respect; Mark Renshaw guesting on ITV today saying he studies Sky’s methods with great interest. Obviously, no one within the sport is going to speculate openly but the fans have shown much more respect to Froome’s result this year.

So the 2016 Tour wasn’t a classic as far as I am concerned; a British win isn’t enough of a justification. I have got this far without mentioning what for many was their defining moment of this years race. The incident involving Froome, Porte and Trek’s Bauke Mollema on the Ventoux stage could have played out very differently but actually mattered little to the overall outcome. I’m on board with Froome getting his finish time adjusted (and Richie too, although that was far less significant) as a result of his bike getting smashed by an oncoming moto. I thought that Mollema asked the key question however when he asked if he would have been given the same time as Froome if he had been the only one of the three impeded. When Dave Brailsford suggested that Sky waited patiently for a decision from the race jury I imagine the reverse was true. I can’t help thinking that it would have made for a more interesting race if the original post stage GC positions had been allowed to stand. The likelihood is that Froome would have re-taken yellow on the following day’s TT anyway but it would have shaken things up a bit, something the race needed in my view.

So much for the GC. Peter Sagan continues to entertain in the rainbow stripes and collected another points classification win. He vies with Froome as the rider you have to watch. If only some of the Sagz charisma could rub off onto Froome too. The KOM was dull viewing; it’s a classement that I normally enjoy following but Rafal Majka was more enigmatic as 2016 KOM than the entertaining rider who took the same jersey in 2014.

The sprints certainly didn’t turn out as expected. The key Mark Cavendish stat is that he wins far more Tour stages when he is in the same team as Bernie Eisel. It was the perfect start to the race that he finally got his maillot jaune after several attempts by the organisers to engineer the perfect opportunity. I think i’m right the expectations of a Cav resurgence were actually not that high and it’s been compelling to see the influence this has had on Marcel Kittel even after Cavendish had abandoned the race. It remains to be seen if he can cap everything with a gold medal in Rio in the next few weeks but Cavendish can be satisfied with his work so far in July, if not this year.

Cavendish has been reunited with Eisel and Renshaw at Dimension Data (nee MTN Qhubeka). He wasn’t the only one from the team to have an impact on this years race as Steve Cummings delivered another win to add to his victory in last year’s Tour. Cummings has developed a reputation as the breakaway rider of the peloton and this win added to the others gained in each of the stage races he’s entered this year.

Continue reading VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

VCSE’s 2016 Season Preview

Welcome to 2016 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*. Ahead of last season I wrote about pro cycling’s latest wheeze to evolve with the advent of Velon. I was vary of a potential shift of power towards teams at the time, making the comparison between the changes seen in Football in the UK since the inception of the Premier League. It seems like I needn’t have worried. All we have seen from Velon is some occasionally interesting Go Pro (other bike cams are available) footage and the financial footing of teams seems as precarious as it ever was.

Some changes were proposed. Under Brian Cookson the UCI has pursued a low key reforming agenda that was inevitable after the fall out from the the scandals of recent years. Whether or not the sport needs 3 year licences for teams is debatable. The stability argument, that teams could reassure existing and potential sponsors that they would be racing at Tirreno Adriatico in 2018 is reasonable enough but it exposed where the power in the sport lies. ASO promotes many other races besides the Tour but if you’re an incoming title sponsor of a world tour team the one race you’re going to want to be seen at is La Grand Boucle. For a non world tour team securing an invite to a grand tour is often the difference between financial survival or ruin. There’s also been the unwritten rule that certain teams could expect an invite at the expense of potentially more worthy entrants pace Cofidis at the Tour or Androni at the Giro.

Securing the patronage of ASO (or RCS) has always been important for the outfits below the world tour level. With world tour teams guaranteed a slot on each of the world tours thus far falling out with the organiser hasn’t been a consideration up and until now. Crucially though ASO are unhappy with the UCI proposals, so much so that they want to take their races out of UCI categorisation. This puts a huge hole in the UCI’s 3 year licencing plan as suddenly the stability it suggested is overtaken by the need to stay onside with ASO to be at the grand depart of the world’s biggest cycle race.

Whether or not 3 year licences are the answer to how pro cycling can move forward is moot now that ASO have decided that as far they’re concerned; it’s a no. The impasse has somewhat faded as the new season is upon us (I’m writing this after the Tour Down Under and the day before the Dubai Tour). My guess at this stage is that a compromise or fudge will be found and I’ll be writing a similar article about the sport’s potential new dawn sometime next February.

Moves and Grooves

In the off season it has been evolution rather than revolution for most teams that echoes the uncertainty of the direction of travel discussed earlier. There are a few exceptions of course.

E3_Harelbeke_2012,_boonen_cancellara_op_de_kwaremont_(20265330611) (1)
Boonen v Cancellara for the last time?

Dimension Data (ex MTN Qhubeka) are the latest addition to the world tour teams having secured the services of Mark Cavendish (along with a couple of his consigliere for 2016. Moving up from Pro Conti removes the lottery of securing grand tour invitations (for now) but while the team will benefit from the stability there’s pressure too for the squad and the rider. Cav had a less than stellar 2015 and as the undisputed leader of his new team will be under the spotlight this year. Sprinting has come a long way since Cav, Eisel and Renshaw were casting all before them at HTC in 2009 and with the possibility that he will want to go to the Rio Olympics too I’m not sure Cav will be able to target the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee too.

The make up of Sky’s squad continues to evolve although the number of Brit’s in the team remains the same with Bradley Wiggins replaced by neo pro Alex Peters. Their big signings are former world champ Michael Kwiatkowski from Etixx and Mikel Landa from Astana. Kwiatkowski had a quiet year as befits the holder of the rainbow stripes but he’s got pedigree and versatility. Whether or not the team needs another rider in the Geraint Thomas mould I’m less sure of but it should allow the team to fight for more wins this year. Signing Landa i’m less sure of. The suggestion is that he will target the Giro after going close last year but I can’t help feeling this could go the way of Sky’s previous attempts to win the race. It’s a bold step to take a rider from a team that’s as controversial as Astana, even more so if you’re Sky. It’s uncertain that Landa will ride at the Tour but I would imagine that the tin foil hat brigade will be out in force if he does.

Etixx have lost Cavendish but gained Marcel Kittel alongside a few more ‘big’ signings. Seeing Kittel fall from grace in 2015 was painful at times and not ever entirely explained by the rider either. Will he go well in 2016 is as much of a question as; is Etixx the right team for him to prosper with? Other than having deep pockets are Etixx likely to be significantly better at leading out Kittel as they were Cavendish?

Richie Porte has moved to BMC, although this was announced so early in the ‘transfer window’ it’s ceased to be news. Everything went well for him right up to being Sky’s latest contender for the Giro and after that he was forced to dine out on what might have been. Here’s another move where I’m not sure if the ‘fit’ is anything other than financial and perhaps this further illustrates the fragile nature of a professional riders career. Sacrifice opportunity for cash? I might be doing Richie a huge disservice here but don’t BMC already have a GC rider?

This year will be the last match up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Well I say that, but actually the last time that truly happened was as long ago as 2012. Boonen has had less luck with injuries, but both riders were out of contention long before the big two of Flanders and Paris Roubaix last year. Everyone wants to see these two go head to head one more time but the emergence of riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb (last years winners of the Ronde and Roubaix respectively) will mean that the last of the old breed will need to be in top form and fitness to add to their wins.

What to watch

Well, all of them of course! OK that’s not strictly true and I admit to feeling a little jaded watching some of the cycling last year. The desert races will be an amuse bouche after not seeing anything since September but the season doesn’t really start for me until Paris Nice and Tirreno. Strade Bianche is emerging as a genuine classic and I’ll have high hopes that one of the semi-classics delivers a race as good as last years Gent Wevelgem.

The Ronde is the first of the must see races for me and still edges it over Roubaix. If Cancellara and Boonen are near the front at either it will be a good year.

The grand tours have a way of feeling like the greatest race you have ever seen when you’re in the thick of the actual race. I’ll be left wondering how the Tour is going to be able to top the Giro, although often finding (as in last year) that the Vuelta delivered more drama. The Giro / Vuelta ‘arms race’ of metres climbed and summits finished on continue while the Tour seems an altogether classier affair. Expect my opinion on which one has been the greatest to change after each edition.

So what should you expect from the 2016 cycling season? Should you tune in? The short answer is ‘Yes’. The beauty of the sport lies in it’s unpredictable nature and if 2016 can offer riders recovering from shaky starts to capture the rainbow jersey at the end of the year (Sagan) to new faces emerging as grand tour contenders (Chavez, Dumoulin) then there’s a great race out there waiting to happen.

*The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing

So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Tour de France 2015

Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – in yellow after stage 3

My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.

The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind  did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.

Continue reading So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

Vuelta a Espana 2014 final week 

Just as VCSE questioned the lack of stage wins from the leading contenders for this years Vuelta a Espana and up pops Alberto Contador to bookend the final week with two convincing victories. If it had ever been in doubt that Contador was the class act of the GC field in this years race, these were dispelled by the two results he achieved in the final week. On stage 16 and the penultimate stage 20 Chris Froome was the only one of the main protagonists who could stay close to the race leader but the proximity was strictly in Contador’s gift. He hovered on Froome’s wheel as the two ascended the final climnb to Puerto de Ancares with Purito Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde long since dispatched, before delivering the coup de grace to the Sky team leader and winning by 16 seconds.

Alberto Contador - Vuelta 2014 winner
Alberto Contador – Vuelta 2014 winner

Froome finished the race just over a minute behind Contador in second, having overhauled Valverde earlier in the week but the bare facts are that after stage 16 Contador was unassailable. With the exception of Valverde’s stage win during the first week and the few seconds that Froome gained (only to lose them again the following day) on stage 14 Contador didn’t look like he was in any danger of losing the race lead he had inherited from Valverde’s Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana.

As is the case with every grand tour it seems the final stage, a short time trial around Santiago de Compostela, proved to be anti climatic in more ways than one. The GC is normally long settled by this point and for the 2014 Vuelta the stage descended to near farce as a sudden downpour left the course near unrideable for the sharper end of the peloton. Contador was able to concede more time to Froome in 10 kilometres than he had allowed in the preceding three weeks without any fear that he might actually lose the race lead. This years edition of the Vuelta has had some fantastic stages and the organisers can hardly be blamed for the weather, but final stages are almost becoming an irrelevance as far as GC is concerned. It’s hard to imagine that the events of the final (TT) stage in Paris for the 1989 Tour could be engineered, but organisers and fans alike must all wish for a final day that is worth watching for more that just the final seconds of a bunch sprint.

Contador should (rightly) be viewed as the strongest rider in this years Vuelta, but inevitably questions remain as to whether he would have been able to beat Quintana had the Colombian stayed on his bike. With the absence of a particular rider (for whatever reason) from each of this years grand tours and, furthermore, some riders crashing out during an event we have been denied the opportunity to confirm which rider is the ‘best’ in 2014. Should it be Nibali, Quintana or Contador? Of the first two, both made winning their grand tour victories look relatively simple in the absence of the strongest opposition. Quintana started as a favourite for the Giro, rightly so, but it’s harder to make the case that Nibali started this year’s Tour as a shoe in for the maillot jaune however convincing his win appeared to be in the end. Contador showed flashes in the Tour that he was in great form, a short attack to distance Nibali the day before he (Contador) crashed out in the Vosges for example. We were denied a similar comparison between Contador and Quintana during the Vuelta, but gut feel is that Contador is probably the rider who was the strongest this year. All of this is based on speculation and relatively uninformed opinion. It’s hardly likely that Contador and Froome would have ridden this years Vuelta unless they had crashed out of the Tour, in which case we could have been looking at a Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez podium.

Which leads us to who will be challenging in the grand tours in 2015. Chris Froome has the biggest point to prove. Whichever way Sky spin things, this has been their worst year since 2011, perhaps even since their inception without a single major win in one day or stage races. Not all of this is Froome’s fault as such, although it can be argued that his bike handling did contribute to his early exit from the Tour. The suggestion was that Froome’s performances improved as the Vuelta went on, but conversely it could be said that his main rivals (bar Contador) faded as the race went on. Froome seemed almost a caricature  of himself at times; his fixation on his stem is now a staple for television commentators as much as satirists. Sky’s ability to set the pace for the peloton has waned from the beginning of this season to the point where it almost isn’t a factor anymore. This doesn’t spell the end of the team or Froome though; he was always going to struggle where changes of pace determined by gradient was a factor. It is interesting that Sky have signed, or been linked to, riders who will be able to bring some tactical insight to the team next year. Capturing Nico Roche from Tinkoff will be a real coup if Sky are going to learn how to deal with Contador next season. Worst case scenario for Sky would be that Froome cannot adapt to the new challenges he has faced this year as his rivals had to change to be able to overcome the dominance of Sky last year. He will also benefit from the return to full fitness of Richie Porte and it will be interesting to see if the Tasmanian will be asked to put his grand tour ambitions on hold for another year to ensure that Froome is best equipped for the 2015 Tour de France that will surely be his and Sky’s main target.

Vincenzo Nibali is rumoured to be considering a Giro Tour double in 2015 and VCSE would suggest that the Giro is locked on as the Astana rider ‘gets’ the symbolism of his home grand tour. His team have options now, following a strong performance by Fabio Aru at this years Vuelta to go with his fine result from the Giro earlier in the year. Contador will be at the Tour, with Movistar more likely to back Quintana next year despite resigning Valverde for three(!) more years this week. VCSE will make the bold assertion now that Alejandro Valverde will not win a grand tour in the next three years, even though he will target the Vuelta again next year. Another rider who will not win a grand tour is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha team leader has probably beaten Froome by a nose to the rider who’s had the ‘worst’ year, but this has slipped below the radar due to lower expectations. Admittedly dogged by injury ahead of the Giro, the fact is that Rodriguez has looked out of sorts in every race he has ridden since then. Can he bounce back in 2015? He’ll try for the Giro again, but it’s hard to see the circumstances in which he could beat Nibali.

Back to the Vuelta, the final week had its high point (for your correspondent at least) with Adam Hansen’s late breakaway to win on stage 19. It’s almost inevitable that Hansen will break the record for consecutive grand tour appearances now and his case for inclusion in his Lotto team can only be helped by the occasional stage win. This victory wasn’t quite the solo ride that saw him take a stage in last years Giro but it was just as enjoyable to watch. John Degenkolb picked up another stage win, but his points jersey victory was only confirmed on the final day as Valverde had been in close attention in the contest.

Reading the various posts and articles written after the Vuelta there’s been some suggestion that it has been the best of the grand tours this year. I’m not so sure about this. There’s surely a tendency to focus on what’s most immediate in the memory and much as this years edition has been enjoyable it’s hasn’t eclipsed some of the things that stick in the mind from this years Tour for example. It hasn’t gone to the wire like last years Vuelta either, no matter what you might think of the validity of Chris Horner’s win in 2013. It’s been a good race, with a worthy winner and an interesting route, but probably not the classic that some are suggesting.

Continue reading Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

The Panda’s Revenge – VCSE’s Racing Digest #29

Ardennes Classics 

Interesting that Amstel Gold was moved to the Sunday this year. Pressure from the sponsors maybe? It can’t help any race in search of an audience to be shunted into a weekday spot and weekends have to be the way to go. And before we go any further; confession time. Your correspondent didn’t manage to see the race live. Providing a decent summary of what happened was further compounded by a very short highlights slot later in the day on Eurosport that was basically the last 15km. Hardly a problem with Amstel Gold and while we’re on this subject Fleche Wallone as the races are pretty much decided on their final ascents of their signature climbs.

LBL 2014 winner - Simon Gerrans
LBL 2014 winner – Simon Gerrans

The organisers have tried to make Amstel a bit more interesting by shifting the finish line a little further up the road from the crest (you can hardly call it a summit) of the Cauberg, but with no breaks allowed to remain from earlier in the race and no one able to get off the front towards the end the race was effectlively decided in the final couple of kilometres. The was still a pretty decent sized peloton that sped down into Valkenberg and onto the Cauberg for the final time. The Cauberg is pretty much owned by Phillipe Gilbert with his previous Amstel wins and 2012 world championship and although he (still) doesn’t hold the record for most Amstel victories there isn’t a single Ardennes preview that won’t give him a mention as a potential winner.

Chief rival this year was the rider everyone loves to hate Alejandro Valverde who had stated his aim to challenge for all three races. Let’s consider this for a moment; three hard one day races in the space of seven days and Valverde is unrepentant (as he is in so many ways) that he’s going to go for the win in all three! Almost a week after the races took place and the facts are that the Movistar rider was as good as his word and he was a feature at all three. Whether or not this was the result of fantastic preparation or fantastic “preparation” remains a bit of a mystery but the facts are (for now) that for the 2014 Ardennes Classics Alejandro Valverde came away with a first, a second and a fourth.

He was beaten in Amstel by Gilbert who knows better than anyone else ‘when to go’ on the Cauberg. The feint from new for 2014 BMC teammate Sammy Sanchez may have taken the sting out of an attack by any of his rivals, but in shades of his world champs win Gilbert attacked, went clear and looked comfortable by the end of the race.

Missing at the mid week Fleche Wallone but on the podium at Amstel was Orica’s Simon Gerrans, perhaps unnoticed at the time but a portent of the Aussie national champs ability to be in the right place at the right time in a one day race. Another rider showing form ahead of the weeks headline race and one day ‘monument’ was 2013 Liege Bastogne Liege winner Dan Martin. Martin looked like he might have snatched the win in Fleche Wallone after steeing a path through his rivals up the Mur du Huy for the last time. Omega Pharma Quick Step’s Michael Kwiatowski who joined Martin on the podium looked a reasonable bet as the riders weaved up the Mur’s 19% ramp but the disappointment was all over the Poles face as Valverde skipped by talking on his mobile and eating an ice cream (OK I lied about that bit, but you get what I mean). Valverde demonstrated he’s a man without irony when he couldn’t understand why a section of the crowd booed as he took the victory garlands.

And so to LBL. Martin who famously won the race the year before chased by an inebriated steel worked in a Panda costume (spawning a bizarre marketing tie in for Garmin) looked as if he was catching the late breaking juniors race otherwise known as Domenico Pozzovivo and Giampolo Caruso. As he turned the final corner though Martin was down. OK, there wasn’t a Panda nearby, but even that sounds more plausible than the suggestion that Martin lost his wheel due to someone leaving a pen in the road. This left fans in Birmingham and Ireland cheering for ABV (anyone but Valverde). The juniors were spent, but Gerrans popped up to save the crowd (who were probably at least as lubricated as the Amstel lot) having to boo and hiss at Valverde.

An interesting aside (can’t remember who tweeted it) was that Gerrans didn’t win a thing in two years with Sky. This is possibly mischief making at the expense of both Orica and Sky, but VCSE would interpret the comment as a dig at Sky’s inabilty to make data mining work as strategy and tactics for a one day race. Sky fielded a reduced team at Fleche Wallone and didn’t have a single rider in the top 40 at LBL. Ian Stannard’s win in Het Nieuwsblad now confirmed as another false dawn for the team as far as the classics go (not withstanding strong rides from Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins in Flanders and Roubaix). Orica haven’t had the best of time in the classics this year, but of the two teams you suspect they will feel happier with their return of three monuments for Sky’s bust over the same period.

Tour of Turkey

A race that was really enjoyable last year and then marred by the revelations that GC winner Mustafa Sayer had doped his way to victory. The Torku squad had been dogged by doping issues the previous year as well and were apparently only invited to this years race by agreeing to have all of their riders tested every day (something like that anyway).

Adam Yates - Top prospect
Adam Yates – Top prospect

So the race is a couple of stages that feature summit finishes bookended by sprint stages. Mark Cavendish had turned up with pretty much an A team of lead out men including Petacchi, Renshaw and Steegmans. Andre Greipel was back again, albeit to act as some kind of sprinting Yoda to his Lotto teammates while he still recovers from his seperated shoulder injury. With Marcel Kittel missing as he preferred to ride in the rain in Yorkshire it looked like the sprint stages would be a Cavendish benefit.

It looked as if Cav had messed things up on stage one, but he popped up at the end to take the win, before winning straightforwardly on stage two. A further win after the queen stage to Elmali came Cav’s way before things came unstuck and he was beaten not once, but twice by Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. No disrespect to Viviani, but even he looked surprised to have beaten Cavendish who tweeted after his second loss that he had even managed to lose his Garmin. With the final stage, another sprint finish, still to come there’s the enticing possibilty of Viviani levelling the win tally at 3-3 assuming Cavendish doesn’t decide to reassert his authority. It’s not the easiest of finishes in Istanbul so Cav will need his train to keep him out of trouble if he’s to secure victory.

Perhaps of greater interest is Kittel going to Yorkshire. It’s a pretty pointed reference to Cavendish that he can’t expect any favours from Kittel if he’s going to take a yellow jersey this (or any other) year. Kittel is setting out his priorities really  clearly and there’s obviously a determination to unseat Cavendish from his ‘king of the sprinters’ throne. Cavendish is by no means busted as far as winning races is concerned but its beginning to look like a new generation is taking over where the really big races are concerned. Maybe the losses this week are down to looking over his shoulder at what the man who wants his crown is doing.

The other big story out of Turkey is Adam Yates. Capping a successful start to the week with Gerrans Orica have Yates in the leaders jersey in Turkey after a second in stage 3 and a win on Fridays stage to the summit finish at Selcuk. With only a sprint stage left Yates should be safe for the overall and this would represent a massive win for the British rider in his rookie year. He reminds VCSE of a Richie Porte or Joaquim Rodriguez is style and stature and he could prove to be a massive signing for Orica as far as GC ambitions go. After the teams strong showing at last years Tour it’s possible that we could see Yates targeting at least one of the stages for a win this year.

Tour de Romandie

Obviously we can’t watch this one so look for insight elsewhere! Chris Froome is a second down on Katusha’s Simon Spilak. It’s entirely possible that Froome will overhaul Spilak on tomorrrows final stage, but then again he might not. Sky’s preparation for domination at this years Tour is looking somewhat wonky so far and without an out and out leader for the Giro and the disdain with which they normally treat the Vuelta this could be a year where they actually don’t have to field US Postal style doping questions. OK, we’re ignoring Tiernan-Locke and Henao here, but you know what I mean!

The VCSE view is that anything that means we have a more animated Tour in 2014 is a good thing, whether that’s teams working out how to counter the Sky high tempo approach or stages over the Paris Roubaix route.

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

You remember Zdenek Stybar don’t you? No? He’s the eight year professional with Omega Pharma Quick Step last seen being nerfed out of the race at Paris Roubiax. After an injury blighted season the cyclo-crosser come road racer resurfaced at last weeks Eneco Tour and not only won two stages but the overall as well. It could well have been three stage wins out of the seven on offer, but the Czech rider just missed out to Team Sky’s David Lopez who won stage 6 on the legendary La Redoute climb. Describing his win as “..dream come true” after knee surgery that forced him to miss this years Tour de France Stybar triumphed across a parcours that featured many of the ascents that feature in the Belgian spring classics.

Ian Stannard
Ian Stannard (Photo credit: Brendan A Ryan)

Winning the final stage was the icing on the cake but the party was almost spoiled by another member of the Sky squad bidding for a stage win. Ian Stannard may be developing a bit of a reputation as a bridesmaid after hard graft results in someone else taking the glory, but ‘Yogi’ has enhanced his reputation again here following his dogged pursuit of the win at this years Milan San Remo and a strong support role at the Tour. Stannard is without doubt an ‘engine’ which may not be to his advantage in the cat and mouse game that is the final kilometre of a stage. However, he does look like a rider that can do a job for Sky on this type of terrain. He’s likely to have protected status for the classics next season, but Sky’s team leader may yet have to show his face. INRNG suggests that Sylvain Chavanel will be riding for a Pinarello shod team next season. It’s hard to imagine Movistar prioritising the classics and Sky need a ‘face’ who’s a proven winner in the Juan Antonia Flecha mould (ah.. hold on a sec.. should say potential winner). With Sky rumoured to have courted Fabian Cancellara before he re-signed with Trek, the need for a marquee classics signing increased and Chavanel fits the bill.

Unfortunately for Sky, the UK is more likely to inspire stage race and grand tour wannabes as the country continues to ride on the wave of interest sparked by multiple Tour de France wins. In the short term they may have to rely on brought in talent from overseas to realise their goal of a classics win.

The had been talk of that student of road racing history and folklore Sir Bradley Wiggins bulking back up for a tilt at Paris Roubaix. Wiggins followed up his low key return to racing in the Tour of Poland with a similarly disinterested appearance at Eneco. In Poland intentions were clear with Wiggins surrendering his leaders position to Sergio Henao. A week or so later in the low countries and with a strong team around him, the sight of Wiggins going out the back on stage one was a pretty strong indicator that he wasn’t focused on the GC. The often mis-firing Sky PR machine was wheeled out with the big reveal that he would be going for victory in the TT, further preparation for the world championships in September.

The TT stage over a not quite prologue like 13 or so kilometres was technical, not the length or route that Wiggins would chosen, but expectations would have been high for a win. A sense that the wheels were coming off at least figuratively became apparent when Radioshack’s Jesse Sergent crossed the line 15 seconds faster. Ironic if Chavanel is Sky bound as it was the French TT winner who ended up taking the stage.

Taking everything into account about the distance and technical nature of the course this is more of a bump in the road as opposed to the kind of setback that Wiggins endured in the Giro. There’s a sense that he is still something of a fragile character after Italy, so the focus on his strongest discipline is understandable. While Chris Froome was arguably the stronger on the climbs during Wiggin’s Tour win in 2012, Froome is yet to beat him against the clock. If anything Wiggins seems to become more reconciled to his position in the team with interviews over the last few weeks describing how he wouldn’t expect to lead a GC assault if Froome was in the same squad and now indicating a return to track cycling for the 2016 Olympics.

The weeks racing was interesting also for the ability of individual riders to upset the bunch sprint. This was played out to greatest effect in stage 1 with a sprinter actually causing the break. Whether by accident of design Omega Pharma destined Belkin rider Mark Renshaw pulled off an enjoyable (for this viewer anyway) upset that seemed to surprise most of the peloton and maybe even some of his teammates. There’s a link to Renshaw’s power data for the stage on our Facebook site.

Wiggins isn’t the only rider having a year to forget. Current world road race champion Philippe Gilbert had another week to forget at Eneco and is without a win this year. If there is a ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ there aren’t many better ways to illustrate it. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta with a similar uphill finish to his favourite Fleche Wallone. How he (and BMC) will be hoping for a similar result for this years race.

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

After the hype ahead of this years Giro and the 100th Tour the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana is facing an uphill struggle for attention every bit as steep as the Alto de L’Angliru. Last years edition benefited from Alberto Contador’s return to grand tour racing. Not surprisingly, Spanish riders are always up for the home races and last year was no exception with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez joining Contador in the GC battle. Hard as it is to imagine after his dominant form this year that the 2012 Vuelta was the first race for Chris Froome as an official team leader.

Froome, fatigued from his efforts supporting Bradley Wiggins in the Tour, faded as the Vuelta’s climbs became steeper and eventually finished far from disgraced in 4th. The early leader was Rodriguez, but he was to experience disappointment again as with his runner up spot in the Giro earlier the same year. Rodriguez was expected to lose his lead to Froome or Contatdor during the TT, but he survived until Contador attacked on a relatively innocuous looking stage 17 and rode away for the stage win. Rodriguez left exposed on the stage took another kick as a resurgent Valverde overhauled his 2nd place. Contador, whatever anyone might think of his provenance looked imperious and anyone watching would have predicted that 2013’s strongest rider was likely to be the recently returned Spaniard.

The race was notable for the emergence of John Degenkolb, who dominated the sprint stages for Argos Shimano, taking five altogether.  VCSE’s stage of the race was the solo win by local pro-conti Caja Rural rider Antonio Piedra at the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.

So, what of this years version? Just as the Tour, last years winner is missing. Contador pulled out from the race before the Tour had even finished and Saxo Bank will be led by Contador’s ‘shadow’ at the Tour Roman Kreuzinger. Froome has massively transcended his situation from last year, where team leadership at the Vuelta was his reward for helping Wiggins at the Tour. Based on that train of thought might we have expected Richie Porte to lead Sky in Spain? No, Froome and Porte are in the US for the Pro Challenge. Sky as they are minded to do will probably select their Spanish riders like Lopez and Xandio in support and lead with the Columbian’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. Team leader will probably be Henao. Uran’s departure to Omega Pharma will be a mark against the rider who if not physically stronger, seems to have the psychological edge over his compatriot.

Although they have had a month to recover it remains to be seen if Rodriguez or Valverde can summon up the reserves to take them two or one place further respectively this time around. Valverde’s Tour fell apart after the wind effected stage from Tours in week two. Shorn of team leaders responsibilities he was able to animate the race in the final week, peaking similarly to the Vuelta last year. For all of the success Valverde’s Movistar team have achieved with several stage wins in this years Giro and Tour, it’s the Vuelta that is the biggest prize for a Spanish sponsored and based team. The Columbian connection continues with AG2R bringing Carlos Betancur. Betancur’s performances in the Giro have been overshadowed by Quintana’s Tour successes, but the AG2R man should come into the race with fresher legs. Rodriguez looked ecstatic with third place in the Tour but surely has ambitions beyond a podium place at every grand tour.

Dan Martin will lead Garmin and has said that he is going for GC, but may be better placed for stage wins, the aim of Orica Green Edge. With extinction looming riders from Euskatel will be looking to put in some strong performances in their home race to reinforce their pitch for a new berth next season. It’s disappointing that so many riders have publicly declared that they are using the Vuelta for training but this should at least allow for allow for some open racing. There’s some interest in the wild cards too with Net App Endura securing an invitation to this years race to provide some Anglo German interest.

So, we have mentioned riders returning to major action since the Giro like Betancur and Uran, but what of the Giro winner. Vincenzo Nibali, the only rider to have beaten Chris Froome in head to head competition this year has performed in almost as low a key as Wiggins since his Giro win. Knowing the Italian was missing the Tour this year to focus on the Giro it was reasonable to think that he would tilt at a Giro Veulta double. Since then Nibali has announced his late season focus is on the world championships being held in Florence in September. A Nibali in form, the same form as he showed in the Giro and earlier in the season, would be an easy prediction for the overall. Nibali is a pretty straight shooter so if he says he isn’t going for GC it will be pretty clear if it’s a smoke screen when the race starts going uphill.

VCSE’s GC Prediction – 1. Valverde 2. Rodriguez 3. Betancur (unless Nibali decides to ride and then all bets are off!)

For the second year ITV4 will be showing an hour long highlights show. Live coverage will be on Eurosport (this obviously applies for UK viewers).

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

Stage 8 (Saturday 31st August) Jerez de la Frontera to Estapona – Actually a cat 1 summit finish with the race visiting the far south of the country.

Stage 14 (Saturday 7th September) Baga to Andorra – Features the highest climb of the race, the 2380m Port de Envalira

Stage 15 (Sunday 8th September) Andorra to Peyragudes – The longest stage of the race crossing into France and over the Col de Peyresourde and 3 more 1st Cat climbs.

Stage 20 (Saturday 15th September) Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru – The traditional penultimate stage with the Hors Category summit finish.

And here’s the GCN view

Rise of the inflatable sponsorship mushroom – VCSE’s Racing Digest #15

Tour de Pologne 

That this was the seventieth or so edition of the Tour of Poland may have escaped you if you didn’t realise that this is the UCI’s reincarnation of the iron curtain era Peace Race. A Cannondale benefit for the last two years with overall victories for Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser, a lack of interest in defending the crown this time around was visible in the selection of Ivan Basso as team leader. Speaking of faded glories, who was that on the start list? Only Sir Bradley Wiggins making his first appearance since the Giro but hinting at something low key by taking the last of six places in the Sky team.

Bradley Wiggins at the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
Bradley Wiggins in time trial mode (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taking place almost immediately after this years Tour de France there was inevitably an absence of riders from the that race, but this was made up for by the return of the faces from the Giro; Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali and from the distant past of the spring classics, Fabian Cancellara. There was a notable refugee from the Tour present. Christophe Riblon called into the AG2R squad due to injury and missing out on a stack of invitations to the post Tour criteriums that demand the presence of the French hero du jour. The post Tour Crits, essentially exhibition races with pre-ordained outcomes are extremely lucrative for their participants. They do require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator however finely balanced or unpredictable the outcome may appear the star attraction must win.

The UCI are considering their own devices that might ensure their sanctioned races avoid the possibilty that one or two teams can force the outcome of a race. The experiment in Poland was smaller teams of six riders. The VCSE view would be that the idea seemed to work quite well. Some things remained the same; there were the normal politics of who could or couldn’t go in the break. Smaller teams appeared to lessen the amount of time one team could stay on the front and whether by accident or design chasing down a break required cooperation. The need for versatility when choosing six rather than nice riders allowed the all rounders like Riblon and Thor Hushovd who won two stages here to come to the fore.

BMC had a good Tour of Poland following neatly on from their overall at the Tour de Wallonie the week before. Hushovd looked in his best form of this year and may even fancy his chances at the world championships on the strength of this week. Win of the week and not just for BMC was Taylor Phinney’s cheeky late break on stage 4. It was strange to think that this was Phinney’s first professional win.

Did the UCI’s novelties extend the the inflatable sponsors mushrooms (or were they light bulbs) or was this an invention of the race organisers. The same organisers had an interesting approach to on screen information with blink and you’ll miss it time gaps. Perhaps the plan was give the viewer an idea of what it was like without race radios. Keen eyed armchair fans will often see a hire van and a couple of hi viz wearing staffers waiting at the side of the road who will dismantle the races road furniture after the peloton has passed. You had to feel sorry for the students who nabbed a summer job on the Tour of Poland and found that they would be spending their time inflating the many hundreds (thousands?) of sponsors mushrooms that adorned the route. Can’t see them catching on really.

The second rank stage races often throw up the most entertaining and animated races with the smaller teams in Poland adding to the mix and ensuring the yellow leaders jersey changed riders several times. Riblon justified his selection with a stage win and just missed out on the overall by seconds on the final stage time trial. He was demonstrably frustrated with losing the race lead on the final day but with his stage win over a tough profile in Trentino decorating his Alpe d’Huez Tour victory Riblon looks like the real deal. Unlike last years hero Thibaut Pinot, Riblon has form with another Tour stage win in 2010.

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

We have too often found that our new gods have feet of clay this year with riders appearing to hit rich form only to discover later it was illegally enhanced. It’s practically impossible to believe this could be the case with Riblon, a French rider in a French team, with the severe anti doping laws in that country. Unlikely to be a factor in grand tours if nothing else Riblon’s performances cement AG2R’s place as the preeminent French world tour team of 2013. Whatever the expectations of the nation that produced Anquetil and Hinault, the teams probably set their bars lower and Riblon’s recent performances coupled with Carlos Betancur’s in the Giro would certainly be envied by FDJ this year. With the race starting in Italy for two stages it was not surprising to see the Italian based and managed Columbia team make an appearance that was rewarded with a stage win and second place for Darwin Atapuma on stages six and one respectively.

Of the returning Giro protagonists there was little sign early on in the race. VCSE spied Bradley Wiggins popping out the back on stage 1 but what became clear from reports if not the coverage was that he was working hard earlier in the stage in support of Sergio Henao. On stage 5 we actually got the evidence for ourselves, treated to Wiggins riding a massively determined turn that destroyed any hopes that the breakaway could stay ahead. As the race went on it became clear that things were getting tee’d up neatly for Wiggins to have a tilt at the win in the final stage time trial. All of the talk now is of him going for the TT in the world championships. Current title holder Tony Martin was absent but Wiggins put the best part of a minute into Fabian Cancellara and more into third place man Phinney. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief that Wiggins has finally hit form, but for VCSE it’s more important that he looks motivated again. Vincenzo Nibali was very much in training mode, dropped on the climbs and reportedly focusing on the world championships only. For Nibali the Vuelta will be a chance to ride into form for Florence at the end of the season.

The overall? A win for Peter Weening of Orica Green Edge who overcame Riblon’s seconds advantage with the time trailing equivalent of winning ugly. His winning ride lacked any souplesse but was at least effective; he took the victory by 13 seconds.

Omega Pharma for GC? 

As the cycling ‘transfer window’ opens the first team to get riders to put pen to paper was Omega Pharma. The much rumoured move from Sky of Rigoberto Uran has been confirmed and the debate about what kind of team Omega Pharma want to be has re-started.  This has been fuelled further by the (again much trailed) signings of Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw to bolster Mark Cavendish’s lead out train. VCSE’s take would be that Uran will be given more support in the grand tours that Cavendish misses. That said, Uran is probably better able than most to freelance in the mountains and if the plan is to get more Omega Pharma jerseys at the sharp end of the peloton on the climbs it’s probably a good move for team and rider.

On the other end of the scale one of the two world tour teams at risk of not appearing in 2014 Euskatel have told their riders to start looking for new teams. With 25% unemployment in Spain it was inevitable that the team would be at risk of losing their funding and a less than stellar set of results has probably sped up the decision to pull the plug. All the same it’s hard to see a team folding when they could kept afloat for a fraction of the amount that Real Madrid are thinking of paying for one player this summer.

After Katusha were reinstated to the world tour after their CAS appeal earlier in the season losing one team from the world tour would not have been too much of an issue if a second rank team was ready to move up in their place. The team most likely, swiss registered IAM have said they don’t intend to make the jump, perhaps burnt by the fact that Fabian Cancellara has re signed with Trek. If no teams make the jump it means another wild card place for the grand tours and the potential for some of the continental squads to get invitations to the second rank races also. If this means that the default invitations of only Italian or French teams to the Giro and Tour can be avoided it’s probably no bad thing. The loss of Euskatel and possibly Vacansoleil also will be felt hardest by the riders and support staff and their families.

Ride London  

No doubt the organisers of the Ride London professional race would like the event to become a regular fixture on the world tour. Run a couple of hours after the 20,000 rider had begun to cross the finish line in The Mall the was a decent sprinkling of teams including Sky, Cannondale and Garmin. With the BBC showing the start and finish of the race live the ‘big name’ being used to batter the casual viewer into showing interest was Peter Sagan. How the Beeb’s commentators would have loved a Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish to have been on the start list. Cycling gets next to no exposure on the BBC but its a shame that the editorial line is always pitched so low with no opportunity missed to mention the Olympics or someone that viewers may have heard of. In fairness the BBC deserved a ‘Chapeau!’ for showing a decent highlights package of the women’s Crit from Saturday night. Laura Trott continued her rivalry with Hannah Barnes in the sprint finish winning the race to make it all square in head to heads between the two this year.

The men’s race was fairly typical for a bumpy parcours; a breakaway that was never allowed to get so far ahead and a bunch finish. The script wasn’t followed as Sagan rode an anonymous race; the only time he appeared on camera was getting bottles from the team car. The circuits of Leith Hill were also largely processional, with the real digs coming on the single ascent of Box Hill. David Millar’s attempt to get another group across to the break was drowned out by the apathy of his companions. When it came to sprint, Parliment Square proved to be too much of a bottle neck for some teams leaving FDJ, who had shown their jersey in the break all day, to be the best organised for the finish. Arnaud Demare took the win with teammates in close attendance.

The men’s race inspires some international interest in the event. The close links between Ride London and the London Marathon would suggest that the format will continue with a professional event book ending the main event which is the sportive. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who take part in the Marathon it’s hard to see why a ceiling of 20,000 was put on the sportive. With 80,000 applying for a ballot place it does seem strange that more riders aren’t able to take part. Obviously the infrastructure needed to close roads through the capital and the Surrey stockbroker belt costs but given that the Marathon is able to support the ‘fun runner’ element surely something could be done to allow more cyclists of all standards to take part next year. This year everyone was given the same start location with any riders struggling to make the 4.00pm cut off directed onto short cuts back to the capital. Perhaps in true sportive style a shorter route could be incorporated next year.

Final thoughts. How many capital cities dedicate their centre’s to mass participation cycling events and professional road races on the same day? Chapeau to London and the organisers. I expect the sportive will be massively over subscribed when registration opens later this month. Last year the BBC showed an hours highlights programme for the men’s and women’s world championship road races. This in the same year as the first ever British Tour de France win and the Olympics. As the BBC programming closed today they announced that they would be showing this years world championships live. For dedicated fans of the sport the low brow coverage maybe frustrating, but we should all celebrate the increased coverage the sport is now getting on the national broadcaster.

Papa and Nicole are in the team car – VCSE’s Racing Digest #4

In what is hopefully not the shape of things to come for race coverage the weeks world tour race, the Tour de Romandie was shown in an ‘exclusively live’ stylee by Sky. As we don’t move in those kinda circles at VCSE Towers, more of that later as we talk about the racing we could watch; the cat 2.1 Tour of Turkey.

This was an interesting race for all kinds of reasons. The field was predominantly pro continental with a sprinkling of world tour teams plus the Turkish continental Torku squad. For the world tour it was a sprinters outing with Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel the stand out names in a quality field with six sprint stages out of eight. Geographically it was probably a reasonably safe bet that the race would be held in good weather and other than contending with cross and / or head winds on some days the peloton enjoyed its first race of 2013 that hasn’t involved arm warmers, rain jerseys and overshoes.

Marcel Kittel
Marcel Kittel (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

The race has been held for nearly 50 years but has only reached 2.1HC status in the last couple of years. As such it’s what is known as a ‘flyaway’ race and the teams leave their buses, trailers and team cars behind with all transportation provided by the organisers. Any regular viewers will know that the default team car of the world tour is the Skoda Superb estate. There are a couple of exceptions with moneybags outfits like BMC and Sky opting for Mercedes and Jaguar but whatever difference these cars have in price they share the common feature of taking up lots of road. Skoda like to make a virtue of this by recreating a series of crashes, scrapes and near misses shot from ‘inside a team car’ for their advertising. No ‘fly on the wall’ was available when the respective DS’s of Argos Shimano and Omega Pharma et al picked up their team cars but there were probably some jaws dropping when they realised that they were going to have to use a Renault Clio. Conspiracy theorists may speculate this is why BMC and Sky didn’t show.

The stages went sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint. First blood went to Kittel before stage two served up the kind of finish that ensures the memories of the Tour of Turkey will live on via YouTube long after people have forgotten minor details like who took the overall. With another sprint finish in the offing Blanco were leading with Mark Renshaw looking to deliver Theo Bos for the win.  Finishing in Antalya the surrounding hotels and apartment blocks required a helicopter tracking shot for the final few k’s. Dissection of what happened next suggested that Renshaw touched a wheel, but whatever the cause the outcome was possibly the biggest pile up ever. Riders that weren’t involved in the crash (the minority) came to a halt as there was no way past a tangle of bikes and riders that spanned the road. Orica’s Aidis Kruopis celebrated as if he had actually beaten Greipel and Kittel by inches and saying in his post race interview that ‘..I felt I could pull off a result today’ suggested he should starting gambling or astrology as he could be equally gifted at both.

Stage 3 saw the first summit finish of the week and another notable first as Europcar’s NatnaelBerhane became the first African to win an HC category event. Berhane took over the GC from Griepel, with his classy win showing great tactical awareness, attacking at the last when his rivals ran out of legs. Berhane showed more flashes of brilliance later in the week when he was able to bridge back to the leading group to safeguard his leaders jersey. He seemed like a pretty safe bet for the overall but there was another twist in the tale on stage 6. 

If you’re a Turkish team it’s a pretty safe bet that you will get an invite to your ‘home’ race. Torku had been in the mix all week holding the Mountains jersey and getting riders in the breaks. One of the riders in the group that Berhane emerged from on the climb to Elmali was Torku’s Mustafa Sayar. He drew attention on the climbs thanks to his ability to churn out a gear that looked at least two cogs smaller than anyone else. Susceptible to attack and changes of pace, despite all this Sayar kept grinding the big ring crossing the line 6 seconds down on Berhane. Sayar, distinctive in the peloton if not for his pedalling style than his hairstyle with what can only be described as a mullet was pushing another massive gear on stage 6. The difference here was that as Sayar ground up the climb the remaining GC contenders, Berhane included couldn’t stay with him. Sayar had 18 seconds on the next best rider on the stage and took 43 seconds out of Berhane to take over the lead. There was some talk afterwards and the day after in a ‘come from nowhere’ context as some people questioned the validity of Sayar’s win. Another one for the conspiracy theorists perhaps, but a look at Sayar’s results so far this year suggest he is in the form of his life even if not at this kind of level before.

With no more significant climbing involved Torku defended the GC over the next two days onto the finish. Attention shifted back to the sprinters. Andre Greipel had taken stages 4 and 5 convincingly thanks to his ability to get over the climbs on the hilly stages better than Kittel. With the topography favouring Kittel on the penultimate stage 7 the riders would enter the last day on two stage wins apiece.

Many of the stages followed the same route as previous years and just as stage 2 had served up 2013’s YouTube sensation the finish in Izmir provided the fun in 2012 as you can see in the clip below. This years stage was not without its talking points. The dozen or so riders who took the wrong line as the race entered the final few kilometres, including most of the Orica lead out train, found that they couldn’t rejoin the race after heading up a virtual cul-de-sac.

Stage 8 was raced across two continents as an event held in Istanbul only can be. A minor spill involving one of Greipel’s Lotto team mates on the run in may have hampered his lead out as he was a few bike lengths behind Kittel as the race got within 500M of the flag. Kittel, blocked slightly himself extricated and won easily. The last kilometres of the stage had been run around a 12k circuit which led to the odd backdrop of an avenue of white vans provided by the organisers in lieu of the teams normal buses parked on either side after the finish.

The Tour of Turkey proved to be a worthy alternative for Eurosport this week. Magnus Backstedt co commentated with David Harmon and rode a number of the stages in full or part which provided another level of insight. Big Maggi is often the one who gives the game away about how many races Eurosport cover from the UK as he invariably pops up on social media miles away from the race he is commentating on. The racing this week has definitely benefited from having Eurosport ‘boots on the ground’ as Maggi and David Harmon were able to share conversations had with the riders and support staff first hand and post on bike footage of each stage. Rather like the Tour of the Basque Country earlier the Tour of Turkey served up an unexpected and entertaining week of pro cycling.

Tour de Romandie

Can’t tell you much about this one as VCSE couldn’t watch it. It’s interesting to see that Sky have picked up a couple of the races that ‘their’ team won in 2013 with the Tour de Suisse to be shown later in the year. The fact that both races are held in Switzerland may be of more significance but without the premium digital TV subscription VCSE has been reliant on social media to catch up on the Sky blitzkrieg in the Alps.

With Sky announcing the Giro squad this week the riders supporting Chris Froome at Romandie are more than likely some if not all of the Tour team including Richie Porte, Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez. Froome is a pretty decent time trialler so the stages book ended by a prologue and time trial looked made for him to retain the title that Bradley Wiggins took in 2012 for Sky.

The opposite weather to Turkey prevailed with the penultimate stage curtailed due to the conditions. It sounds like Sky employed the usual tactics of controlling the pace although this must have been touch and go until the penultimate stage with Froome enjoying only a 6 second advantage over Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. Talansky slipped off the radar at this point finishing well down the GC.

Conclusions from a race we didn’t watch? After winning the race last year its hard to imagine Sky would have lined up with any other plan than to retain the title. The psychological impact of leading and winning a race that involves a yellow jersey seems hard to resist and when there has been one up for grabs in 2013 it has generally been a Sky rider who’s wearing it. Another parallel is that Froome like Wiggins before him is winning most if not all of the races he enters. Other than Tirreno Adriatico where the steeper punchier climbs don’t favour him or Sky’s tactical approach Froome has looked good (we’re assuming he looked good at Romandie, this was certainly the case in Oman and the Criterium International).

Does this mean Froome and Sky will with the Tour? Let’s assume that Bradley Wiggins won’t win the Giro. If this is looking likely before the start of the final week in Italy Sky could hold back one or two of the Giro squad, Henao, Siutsou, Uran or even Wiggins himself with a view to bringing the strongest possible team to the Tour. If Wiggins is still in the mix for the Maglia Rosa at the end of the Giro VCSE thinks it’s possible that Sky might be spread to thin to have a tilt at both grand tours. The Giro squad looks light, although the make up is partly driven by the teams part Italian ownership. So far all of the talk emanating from the Death Star has been that Wiggins is in better shape than at this point last year. Race results suggest otherwise however and Sky said similar things about their classics squad this year. As things stand the VCSE tenner would be going on Froome for the Tour at this stage.