The “World’s Toughest Sport” no longer?

Tirreno Adriatico & Paris Nice 2016 

The early season stage races are generally seen as a tune up for the classics season that starts in earnest this weekend with Saturday’s (that’s right; Saturday) Milan San Remo. An early marker had already been put down ahead of Tirreno by Fabian Cancellara. Overhauling previous winner Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan (have you noticed that people are already talking about the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’) Cancellara has followed up a fine result in Sienna with victory in the final TT stage of Tirreno today. Cue speculation about a Cancellaraesque (read solo breakaway) win for the man himself in MSR but even if that seems a bit fanciful he looks in great form in his final season of racing.

2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?
2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?

If we’re looking purely at results you would have to put Cancellara well ahead of his fellow valedictorian Tom Boonen who could only manage a 6th place finish on the second stage of Paris Nice in an otherwise low key week on the ‘Race to the Sun’. The only silver lining for the Etixx team leader was that (at least) he didn’t crash out of the race like he did a year ago, effectively ending his season. Boonen may yet come good, he’s looked fast in a few of the bunch sprints I have seen him contest so far this year and I would rather see him add to his tally of monuments purely because I’m in team Tom rather than team Fab. The dream outcome would be a the two veterans going wheel to wheel at the Ronde and Roubaix in April but I suspect I might be disappointed.

While Cancellara has provided some easy headlines ahead of Milan San Remo the rider that we might be ignoring is Orica’s Michael Matthews. Before disappearing from view on Sunday’s final stage Matthews held the overall lead for almost the entire week after winning the opening prologue and the second stage. He might not be the fastest sprinter in the pack; in fact he might not be the fastest in his team but he’s hitting form at just the right time for Saturday’s ‘sprinters classic’.

So far in this post I have stuck to the script as far as the dotted line between Paris Nice, Tirreno and the classics goes but that’s only part of the story of these two stage races. Well, that’s normally the case anyway. The GC in both races is usually disputed between and won by a grand tour rider. In recent years Paris Nice has been a bit of a Sky benefit with Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte (twice) taking the win. The queen stage of both races decides the outcome that’s cemented by a final TT stage. Paris Nice ended with a road stage this year and it’s true that the final GC was studded with grand tour riders but Tirreno delivered a different outcome after Sunday’s queen stage was cancelled due to bad weather. As the only mountain stage of the week this left the GC open for a classic specialist and Greg van Avermaet duly took the overall after victory in the penultimate stage put him into the lead.

Rapidly becoming the Katie Hopkins of the pro peloton Vincenzo Nibali drew a lot of criticism for suggesting that the stage should have gone ahead. In the immediate aftermath of Nibali venturing his opinion on social media it seemed like he was a lonely voice but Michael Rogers took a more reasoned view today when he said he thought he understood part of the Nibali motivation. Rogers suggested that it was Nibali’s desire to race that laid behind his intervention. While Rogers didn’t agree with Nibali that the stage should have gone ahead he could see why Nibali would have wanted it to. Viewed in this way Nibali’s comments make more sense as he needs to deliver a stronger set of results than last year. While another victory in Tirreno would not have gone amiss the strategy Nibali seems to have embarked upon has so far only alienated his fellow riders and fans alike. There have already been incidents of riders getting injured unnecessarily this year on top of the bike / car v rider accidents from last season and the direction of travel is firmly in the direction of improving safety.

Nibali wasn’t the only grand tour rider having a difficult week. Defending Paris Nice champion Richie Porte turning out for his new BMC team made the podium but lost out to the rider who has arguably replaced him as Sky’s second string grand tour leader Geraint Thomas. Porte played down his expectations, but BMC made the kind of noises that pointed towards their expecting more from the latest expensive addition to the roster. Thomas and Porte were split by Alberto Contador who huffed and puffed but couldn’t really find anything steep enough to deliver a killer blow to Thomas.

Perhaps the most interesting grand tour story of the week is Thomas’ victory. After delivering his and Sky’s best ever result in a classic with a win in the E3 last year Thomas went on to ride superbly in the Tour and was instrumental in Chris Froome winning his second maillot jaune. Thomas has talked about leading the team in grand tours and this win may be another step on the journey but at what cost to Sky in the classics?

A couple of other mentions..

Steve Cummings ‘stealing’ another stage win is always great to watch. Marcel Kittel absent from the sprint proceedings in Paris Nice and I could also say the same for Alexander Kristoff (but welcome back Arnaud Demare). Too early to say if Kittel is reverting to the shadow of 2015 yet though.

How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

2015 Desert races – Dubai & Oman

Mark Cavendish doesn’t have a lot of time for armchair cycling commentators and even assuming that the Etixx Quick Step sprinter had stumbled upon this I don’t think it was just me that Cav was trying to prove a point to in Dubai at the start of this month. Cavendish took two stage wins and the overall GC in what was always likely to be another sprint fest on the Arabian Peninsula. Of course the win here won’t (read hasn’t) silenced the speculation over whether or not he can reclaim the throne from Marcel Kittel or, perhaps more importantly, earn another lucrative contract with his team. Even Patrick Lefevere is suggesting that Cavendish needs results if he wants to be re-signed by the erstwhile OPQS squad. Of course Kittel was absent from Dubai this year, so all bets are currently off over who has come into the season in better form, the key showdown likely to come at the Tour. However Lefevere indicated that Cavendish needed to perform in the early season races like this weekend’s Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and the first monument of 2015; Milan San Remo. The Belgian squad can’t change its spots as far as wins in the classics being the priority despite the investment in GC riders like Uran and emergence of Kwiatowski (admittedly no slouch in the one day races either). The impression I get is that a repeat of Cavendish’s 2009 MSR victory will be enough to ensure his continued employment with the potential size of his contract dictated by continuing that form into the summer.

A winner in 2015 - Mark Cavendish
A winner in 2015 – Mark Cavendish

One of the riders that Cavendish will need to beat in MSR is Kittel’s teammate John Degenkolb. The Giant sprinter was the main threat to Cavendish on GC in Dubai and while the Manxman impressed with his 17th place on the one stage that offered an opportunity for the climbers, Degenkolb showed his versatility by scaling the steep sides of the Hatta Dam faster than Alejandro Valverde to take victory and briefly hold the overall lead. Giant have an abundance of sprinters, but it’s to their advantage that each of them bring something different to the party. Degenkolb can do the out and out bunch sprinter thing, even if he isn’t quite at the level of Kittel or Cavendish for outright speed. He’s emerging as a rider who is potentially more valuable in terms of world tour points however as he will be in the mix on (more than just) a pan flat sprinters stage and he can figure in one day races too. Even last year with his podium in Paris Roubaix and remaining at the sharp end on the Ronde until the last few km’s showed that Degenkolb could prove to be the more intriguing Giant sprinter to watch in 2015.

The other take out for me in Dubai was Elia Viviani taking stage 2 and his first win in Sky colours. I think Viviani will be a great signing for Sky as they haven’t had a pure speed guy since Cavendish left. Of course it’s possible that Viviani will end up feeling just as frustrated as Cavendish if he’s selected for the Tour as Sky will be entirely focused on getting Chris Froome back into the yellow jersey, but if instead the Italian is picked for the Giro I expect he will claim wins. Sky also had Ben Swift in Dubai, but he’s morphed into a Degenkolb style rider and will be hoping to improve upon his third place at last years MSR. Most of the column inches will be given over to Bradley Wiggins tilt at Paris Roubaix this season and as much I would like to see Wiggins feature there I’m hoping that Swift is able to build on his return to form last year and get a big win in 2015.

It was a shame that we didn’t get to see any of the action from the Tour of Oman this year. Since I started the blog I have enjoyed getting an early look at the grand tour contenders in what is the only one of the desert races that isn’t all flat stick racing. It’s often a good guide to form for the summer too, although Froome’s repeat win in 2014 ultimately didn’t guarantee a repeat in the Tour. Whether or not it was to do with the TV coverage this year (or lack of) the big names were absent from this years edition with Valverde and Tejay Van Garderen the pre-race favourites. Vincenzo Nibali was in Oman (and Dubai) but his presence has been decidedly low key and at this point his form is as much of a closed book as it was ahead of last years Tour.

The eventual winner was Lampre’s Rafael Valls (no, me neither). Valls won the key stage with the summit finish on the Green Mountain from Van Garderen and this was enough to ensure the overall. From the VCSE sofa Valls looks like one of those riders who could be (infamously) described as ‘coming from nowhere’. He’s been with Lampre since Vacansoleil folded at the end of 2013 and this win is by far his biggest to date. Lampre, who didn’t exactly see much of a return on investment from Chris Horner last season and have finally parted company with perennial under achiever Damiano Cunego no doubt will wish Valls’ victory heralds the dawn of something big. If he does build on the result this could mean big things for Spanish cycling too as Alberto Contador is discussing retirement and Valverde isn’t getting any younger.

It’s hard to say why there wasn’t at least a daily highlights package from Oman this year. Of the three desert races Dubai, the upstart, has by far and way the best coverage in so much as you can watch it live. The Tour of Oman is an ASO supported race and no less than Eddy Merckx is on hand to glad hand the press and yet it has been possible only to follow ‘live’ on social media in 2015. Oman doesn’t have the riches of Dubai (or Qatar) but surely it’s the quality of the racing that should take precedent as far as coverage is concerned? Oman’s demotion in the TV stakes is a bit of an uncomfortable example of what happens in a sport where there is (comparatively) little money around. If the future of the early season racing (at least as far as TV is concerned) is that armchair fans can only see the ‘action’ in Dubai because that’s where the money flows it will be a change for the worse.

Continue reading How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

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

Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de France week 2 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #33

Nibali running out of rivals

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its first rest day speculation turned to who would be the next rider to bring a challenge to Vincenzo Nibali’s reclaimed race lead. Nibali had handed off the yellow jersey that he had claimed with his stage 2 victory in Sheffield to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin for a whole day before he took it back with an emphatic win atop the La Planche de Belle Filles.

Can he overtake Nibali? - Alejandro Valverde
Can he overtake Nibali? – Alejandro Valverde

Alberto Contador’s exit, like that of Chris Froome beforehand, had removed the Tour of its pre-race favourites and potentially leaves this years edition in search of a narrative beyond a seemingly locked on Nibali overall victory in Paris on Sunday. Sky touted Richie Porte as their new team leader, but this was a rider who had seemed out of sorts ever since he was switched from a defence of his 2013 Paris Nice title. That decision was an early indicator that Sky would be backing a solitary horse this season in Froome, although Porte was unfortunate to miss a further opportunity to lead when he missed the Giro through illness. Dave Brailsford has a reputation as a straight talker, however it’s hard to see that continue if he suggests that a rider is “..climbing better than ever” and said rider (Porte) folds on the first day of alpine climbing. The Tasmanian looked as if he knew he was a folorn hope as he was the first of the depeleted GC contenders to loose the wheel on the stage to Chamrousse.

Porte fell from second place to sixteenth and with more than ten minutes lost to Nibali conceded that he wouldn’t be a factor in this years race any longer leaving Sky looking for a plan C. As Nibali took his third stage win the GC shake up saw Alejandro Valverde move into second place and three French riders in the top ten. Valverde still occupies second place and perhaps more in search of story than a basis in reality it’s been suggested that he will challenge Nibali in the Pyrenees. With one Pyrenean stage down Nibali the Movistar attack has looked toothless so far. It’s certainly true that Nibali’s Astana teammates are seen as the chink in his otherwise impressive armour, but the truth is they haven’t performed any better or worse than domestiques on the other squads. Valverde had supporters in hand as the peloton climbed the Porte de Bales while Nibali had none, but by the time the latter crested the summit Valverde had been dropped. The two were back together at the finish, won in fine style from the break by Mick Rogers, but the chance for Valverde to take back some seconds had been missed.

Another rider leaving the Tour in the Alps was Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. The American had suffered a number of crashes including a spectacular coming together with Simon Gerrans at the finish of stage 7. In pain ahead of stage 11 Talansky was unable to make it back into the peloton and at one point was being gapped further by his teammates drilling the pack on the front. He made the time cut, just, after a period sat on the roadside where he either begged to continue or was persuaded to carry on. The truth of that isn’t clear, but if Talansky ever does a biography there’s a chapter that could write itself. He finished the stage, but was gone the next day.

Yesterday’s stage saw a twist to the developing story of the French GC challenge. AG2R have two riders in the top ten at opposite ends of the age scale. Leading the young riders classification at the start of the day was Roman Bardet and he was in the last of the podium places also. His teammate Jean Christophe Peraud was in sixth place, but post stage moved to fourth. It hasn’t always been clear who is leading the team, perhaps the plan was to see who could rise to the challenge across a three week grand tour. Peraud had been very unlucky last year with crashes and broken bones. His stated aim is to finish on the podium in Paris, but that is the goal of the younger rider too. The chances are that this particular story has a few more changes of direction in it yet, but Peraud is the stronger time trial rider and he could end up heading the two.

It’s perhaps less clear if there will be an AG2R rider on the podium. Bardet lost third place and the young riders jersey to FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot yesterday.The story of his descending travails have been repeated ad infinitum this year, but it was his climbing that did for Bardet yesterday. It would be interesting to know if Pinot’s motivation for attacking on the climb to Port des Bales yesterday was too gap Bardet or to build an advantage on the descent against riders (like Bardet) who are still stronger going downhill. Perhaps it was both? Outside of the Nibali / Valverde contest, it’s the battle for supremacy among the French riders that creates the most interest.

While the VCSE predictions have been pretty poor this year with neck stuck firmly out it’s got to be a Nibali win on Sunday. You have to suspect that Valverde will be happy with second and he has the teammates to protect his second place over the last of the mountain stages before his superior time trial ability will cement the position in place for Paris. Of the French riders it’s less clear. It seems likely that there will be a Frenchman on the podium in 2014,it’s just a question of who. There might yet be another reversal of fortune if Tejay Van Garderen can take back some time today and tomorrow, but that seems like a long shot. A repeat of his 2012 fifth place seems the best to hope for.

 Best of the Plan B’s

Tinkoff Saxo have given an indicator of just how strong they would have been in support of Alberto Contador with two stage wins since his withdrawal on stage 10. Mick Rogers win yesterday was proceeded by a victory for Rafal Majka on stage 14. Both of the wins have come from breaks, but the crucial thing is that the Tinkoff riders have beens strong enough to stay away. In contrast Sky have struggled to really be a factor since the demise of Froome and Porte. Garmin had Jack Bauer come within metres of a stage win on Sunday after another long break that had echoes of Tony Martin’s glorius failure at last years Vuelta.

AG2R lead the teams classement built on the platform of Bardet’s and Peraud’s high placings, but perhaps the team that’s managed a high profile through improvising results this year is Lotto. Andre Greipel has taken a stage win, but Tony Gallopin’s day in yellow was followed by the same rider taking a stage win. Another rider having a good Tour is Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff who now has two stage win’s under his belt from the lumpier stages. Marcel Kittel has struggled with the climbs, but will no doubt come good for the main event in Paris on Sunday. Greipel should be in second, but Kristoff is in the form of his life and may scramble to the next best title after Kittel.

The final week 

Two more stages in the Pyrenee’s including the iconic climbs of the Peyresourde, Tourmalet and Hautacam should provide some interesting viewing. Expect Europcar to get into the breaks as the team don’t have anything to show for the race so far in their first year on the world tour. VCSE predicts a breakaway win for both stages as Nibali will probably have his hands full covering Valverde. Movistar may yet go for it on the Hautacam stage tomorrow, but it feels more likely that Valverde will want to be conservative and protect his second place.

This years race has been full of surprises though and none the worse for it. It feels like it could only be misfortune that could rob Nibali of his first Tour de France win and that would make him one of a select band to have won all three grand tours. The excitement is likely to come from the French GC battle and the final day’s fireworks on the Champs Elysee.

Tour de France 2014 week 1 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Froome out, Nibali in yellow

The biggest story of the week had to be Chris Froome’s abandon on the ‘Paris Roubaix’ stage on Wednesday. Froome had crashed heavily the previous day as the Tour returned to home shores. Running at the front on what should have been a comparatively easy day for the GC contenders,  Froome touched a wheel and was down. The crash seemed fairly innocuous at the time; hardly anyone else was effected and Froome sprang up pretty quickly to get back on his bike. He spent a lot of time with the on course doctor however and there was speculation that he might have fractured his wrist. Although this was dispelled by the team following x-rays it was subsequently revealed on Friday long after his exit that he had in fact sustained two fractures (revealed by an MRI scan).

Can I win the Tour? - Vincenzo Nibali
Can I win the Tour? – Vincenzo Nibali

The chances are that Froome would have wanted to start the next day whether he was in acute pain or not. As much as he (and to be fair Sky) has lost support in some sections as a result of Bradley Wiggins non selection for this years race, Froome was undoubtably extremely motivated to defend his title. He had already shown his appetite by his performances during the opening two stages and the look on his face when he shook his head in response to the mechanic who asked if he could continue after his second crash on stage 5 spoke volumes. Sky pretty much admitted that they had their concerns about Froome when they committed some of the squad to protect Richie Porte, their ‘Plan B’, during the stage and the teams efforts looked divided from the moment that the erstwhile leader had his first crash of the day.

While a number of riders, both in and out of this years race, team managers and other interested observers opined that cobbles had no place on the Tour, the facts are that only one rider abandoned on stage 5; Froome. Sections of the Paris Roubaix course have been included in previous Tours but this stage had the misfortune to be run in pretty awful weather, unlike the last few years of the actual race that has enjoyed dry and sunny conditions in April. With the unexpectedly huge crowds that lined the route in the UK causing a few spills combined with the slippery nature of the weather effected stages since the race has returned to France this years Tour has had its fair share of abandons and retains quite a few walking (or should that be riding?) wounded.

While Chris Froome faltered Vincenzo Nibali has prospered. The Astana rider enjoyed almost the polar opposite of fortunes on stage 5 finishing 3rd on the stage and pulling out over a minutes lead on his nearest GC rival. The easy assumption when the route of this years Tour was announced was that the GC contenders would view stage 5 as one to be endured and hopefully completed without too many mishaps. There wasn’t a slew of articles trumpeting Nibali (or anyone else) as the GC rider most likely to do something on the stage. The cliche that Nibali is a ‘great descender’ is almost a bit of a joke these days, but like a number of riders in the peloton, he is an ex mountain biker and on that basis is less fazed by sketchy conditions. After springing a surprise to take stage 2 in Sheffield (what were the odds for that one?) it almost feels as if Nibali has taken advantage of the fact that no one really tapped him as a serious contender for this years race. His first win this year had been just a week before the Tour at the Italian nationals, but in seven stages of the Tour he has taken the Maillot Jaune, a stage win and a podium.

Contador’s confusion

The question of whether of not Nibali can hold onto the lead is not quite as clear writing this ahead of the first stage (8) that involves some serious climbing. Wrapping up the opening stages we suggested that Nibali could hold on to the jersey if he didn’t suffer any mishaps on stage 5 (done!). However, we further speculated whether Nibali’s stage 2 win was just a bit of opportunism, scraps from the table of the forthcoming Froome / Contador match up. The next three days in the Vosges should provide some if not all of the answers as to if this is a serious tilt at the GC by Nibali. He has looked good so far, but to win the race from stage 2, to hold the lead for that length of time, is something that hasn’t been done since 1961 with Jacques Anquetil.

Alberto Contador appears to be a man in confusion at the moment. He started the Tour with the strategy he had employed during the Dauphine; marking Froome. Now that Froome is absent, Contador seems bereft of ideas, thrown by the prospect of combating a rider with a completely different riding style. Contador had a torrid time of the cobbles too, losing nearly 3 minutes to Nibali. Although Contador has lost a key domestique (to concussion on stage 6) riders like Nico Roche and Mick Rogers are in great form and it’s going to be really interesting to see how the two teams Astana and Tinkoff Saxo and their respective team leaders trade punches over the next few days. When you examine the facts, Contador has enjoyed a fantastic year so far and Tinkoff look like a very well drilled outfit. Nibali and Astana in comparison have had a tough time and the team have been rife with bitching between the Italian and Kazakh components. The sense is that Contador needs to get his head right as Nibali may just have rediscovered his will to win.

Sagan consistent but winless

Quote of the day was from the rider missing from this years race who speculated if Peter Sagan was “..receiving instructions over his team radio or just Metallica at full blast”. Sagan has been there or there abouts on every stage so far and it’s pretty hard to see anyone else claiming the points jersey from him. A third win in this competition in as many years is obviously some achievement, but the stage win tally is falling. Missing out on the victory by inches yesterday hurt much more than the placings gained while sprinting against Marcel Kittel.  Sagan will continue to have a go, but he’s another rider who looks a little short on confidence at the moment despite the jersey he’s wearing.

Marcel Kittel enters every sprint stage knowing that they are his to lose. Mark Cavendish’s accident and subsequent abandonment of this years Tour has denied the Giant Shimano rider of his most potent competitor. VCSE’s view is the in the bare knuckle environment of the last kilometre of a bunch sprint Kittel currently is just about impossible to beat and for all the work Cavendish has done this year to counter the Kittel threat, he has been undone himself by riders that a year or two ago would have been in his wheel tracks.

Kittel can be beaten.  Andre Greipel won his obligatory stage win the day before yesterday after Kittel and his teammates had been exhausted by the cross winds that effected stage 6. Similarly Kittel wasn’t always a feature in last years race for the same reasons. For him though, he has already achieved the first part of the important Tour double; yellow after stage one. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that he will fail in his quest for the second; a consecutive victory on the Champs Elysee.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – final week and round up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giro d’Italia 2014 wrap up 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble with remembering Marco – Giro 2014 week 2 round up

Giro d’Italia 2014 week 2 (ish) – stages 10 through 16

Before we look at the racing consider the unhappy anniversary that was ‘celebrated’ during the second week of this years Giro; Marco Pantani died ten years ago. If the circumstances surrounding Pantani’s death in a Rimini hotel room weren’t uncomfortable enough to remember the sense of awkwardness has been increased as todays riders and commentators have tried to walk the line between recognising his talent while acknowledging his doping.

Marco Pantani - Saint or Sinner?
Marco Pantani – Saint or Sinner?

Marco Pantani’s legacy seems to exist in an in between state, like some kind of lycra clad fallen angel. On the one hand a climber (albeit EPO fuelled) of verve and passion who, at least at the time, was the antithesis of Lance Armstrong. On the other a tragic case who struggled to cope with the literal and figurative come down of his ban (for a high hematocrit rating)  during the ’99 Giro. It might seem ghoulish to wonder how Pantani would be regarded now if he had lived, but it’s reasonable to assume he wouldn’t be venerated quite as much as he is by certain sections of cycling fans and the media. You only have to look back at last years Giro and the subsequent ban of Danilo Di Luca to see that there are no pedestals for the majority of grand tour winners who are Italian and have a chequered history of PED use.

Pantani’s death however tragic and some would argue avoidable has also provided his reputation with the kind of metaphorical cleansing that a Di Luca or Ballan would (if you will allow it) die for. Pantani remains a hero for many, particularly in his native land. Even if the organisers hadn’t pitched this years edition as a Pantani celebration the graffiti that adorns the climbs of the Giro would still have appeared. Not everyone has appreciated the retrospective however. Knowing Pantani’s past, it’s difficult to look at the footage that has been served up as an example of the rider at his best without asking “Could he have done the same thing clean?”. Certainly there are sections of fans out there that feel that Pantani isnt a rider that should be celebrated. Thus after criticism came their way after one Pantani ‘epic’ was shown, commentators had to admit that the celebration was at the very least dividing opinion.

In many ways Marco Pantani reminds VCSE of a (Paul) Gascoigne or (George) Best type figure. Undoubtably talented but how much more or less was achieved due to his substance abuse can never be known. He probably deserves his elevated status as cycling icon as much as he should be condemned as another rider who doped to win. In a Giro where it’s looking increasingly likely that a rider from the new generation will win, might the organisers reflect on the irony of 2014 being the year of Pantani.

This years race entered week two with Cadel Evans in the Maglia Rosa, closely followed by Rigoberto Uran and Rafal Majka around a minute or so further back. Stage 10 following the rest day didn’t offer much of interest for the GC but did see another win for Nacer Bouhanni who continued as the chief beneficiary of Marcel Kittel’s early exit. It was business as usual for the GC on stage 11 too, but in this Pantani year an interesting ‘doping’ (or not) vignette played out when Tinkoff Saxo’s Mick Rogers attacked off the final climb and managed to stay away for the stage win. Rogers has just returned to racing after being cleared of taking a banned substance following a positive test in last years Tour of Bejing. The story behind why Rogers left Sky at the end of 2012 for the then Saxo Bank squad is one we will leave for another day, but it was clear to see that the win meant a lot to the Australian and demonstrates that for many riders who were active in the 2000’s the act of winning has changed.

All of which took us to the individual TT and a change in the lead. Colombian riders have been known to surprise in TT’s and this year it was Uran’s turn to show he had the speed. Evans had a test to forget losing the over a minute on the stage and the GC lead to Uran. Diego Ulissi missed out on a third stage win so far in this years Giro after occupying the hot seat for much of the stage. Nairo Quintana, last years Columbian TT surprise package was further down the order and trying to shift a cold before the peloton reaching the mountains at the weekend.

After two stage wins for wild cards Bardiani, including a repeat stage win for Enrico Battaglin the peloton moved on to the Pantani stage to Montecampione. Winner here was Astana’s new team leader Fabio Aru, just going to show that being tipped for a low profile performance by this blog is the perfect ingredient for serving up a stage win. The curse of VCSE similarly struck Domenico Pozzovivo who dropped to 6th on GC after struggling on this stage and the one before. The home fans, eager to pin their hopes on someone, thus transferred the allegiance from Pozzovivo to Aru after the star performer of the previous weekend saw his form dip. Uran remained in the Maglia Rosa, but his grip seemed as unconvincing as Evans’ had done before him.

And so to today’s (Tuesday) stage. Featuring the Gavia and Stelvio passes that had proved so snow bound the previous year that the race enjoyed another (unscheduled) rest day, this year the peloton would be forced to negotiate not only these two, but a finishing climb to Val Martello, a 14% series of S bends.

The weather almost conspired to neuter the stage. The descent off the Gavia had proved difficult although (for such a injury strewn race) crash free. Snow falling at the top of the Stelvio led to confusion over a neutralised descent. What appeared to happen is that some riders wanted to race despite the conditions and did so. Notable among the hardest of the hard men (everyone was today) was Sky’s Dario Cataldo, first over the top and eschewing dry clothes and food to race away to the valley floor 25km below.

Behind Cataldo a split had developed between the Maglia Rosa group that included Evans and Pozzovivo and an elite selection that included Quintana, Pierre Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal. Quintana was always going to be the strongest climber out of this group and as Uran fell further behind and out of the race lead it was Rolland who cracked first. Hesjedal who had abandoned his decidedly retro eyewear somewhere in a Stelvio snow drift had seemed to be suffering back on the pass yet somehow managed to stay on Quintana’s wheel until almost the bitter end. For all of that, his reward was only to get back into the top 10, Rolland did better to jump from 8th to 4th at Aru’s expense.

So the lead has passed from one Columbian to another. VCSE suggested that Uran needed to prove his worth as a GC contender to his Omega Pharma team at this Giro and to an extent he has. Taking the jersey on the TT shows another side to his climbing and with another (uphill) TT to follow Uran may have another card to play. If he’s to have any chance of wresting the Maglia Rosa from Quintana however, his team need to do a much better job of protecting him. Uran is currently using too many matches trying to match the pace and tactics of his rivals who often have a rider to spare.

Evans somehow remains third and may yet stay there if he can continue to hold a wheel. This is pretty much the tactic he employed at last years race, but the suspicion has to be that he will be less succesful doing this with Quintana than he was with Uran. Uran, until today, managed to ride into the lead and keep it by riding conservatively and not losing much time. He has enough of a lead over Evans in third that suggests that a repeat of last years second place is possible if not the outright win. Quintana, over his cold, looks like the man to beat.

Third place is harder to call. There’s less than a minute between Evans in 3rd and Hesjedal in 9th. It’s easy to see Rolland, Majka or Aru having a good day or two and taking the final podium place, but for all that he has disappointed in week two Pozzovivo is well placed to strike at 3.49 in 7th place.

Tomorrow’s stage should be a bit of a rest day for the GC, but it’s followed by two mountain stages bookending the uphill ITT stage 19. We will see the final GC shake out on Saturday on Monte Zoncolan and if first and second places looked nailed on, the minor places are still wide open. But this is the Giro and the weather and the race may still have some surprises in store. The key stage may yet prove to be the TT on Friday.

Vanmarcke’s Haussler moment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #2

In 2009 Mark Cavendish was embarking on what would be his best year yet but ahead of that edition of Milan San Remo he would have been seen as an outside bet for victory on a parcours which doesn’t tend to favour sprinters.

2009 was also the debut season for the Cervelo Test Team with Thor Hushovd leading the team at a point in his career where he was seen a genuine sprint contender and a rival for Cavendish’s green jersey aspirations at the Tour de France. Part of Hushovd’s lead out at MSR was Heinrich Haussler and as the race entered its final moments he got the jump on the bunch expecting to pull Hushovd in to position to launch for the win. Instead, 300 metres out, Haussler was alone and realising that Hushovd had lost his wheel he began to sprint for the line.

The gap from the bunch grew and Haussler, perhaps in disbelief in finding himself in the lead, snatched looks over his shoulder to see who would be challenging him. The sight of Cavendish, low on the bike, winding on more and more speed is a familiar one now and looking at footage now the likelihood of a Cav victory just looks inevitable. Five years ago Haussler looked the favourite, Cavendish catching but surely not winning?

Anyone who has watched ‘Beyond the Peloton’ on VCSE’s YouTube channel will know that Haussler agonised about what happened next and probably will continue to do so. If only the line had been closer. Maybe less looks over the shoulder at the oncoming Cavendish. Haussler’s anguish at being caught on the line and missing victory by a bike length was apparent for the moment he realised he had been passed.

Gutted – Sep Vanmarcke – picture

VCSE was reminded of this watching today’s Paris Roubaix. In what were probably the best conditions enjoyed so far in this year’s monument classics Sep Vanmarcke was beaten on the line by Fabian Cancellara sealing a annus mirabilis for Spartacus and abject disappointment for Vanmarcke.

Cancellara played his hand beautifully as the race entered the final third. With Tom Boonen missing following his accident at the Tour of Flanders Cancellara was the favourite coming into the race but such is the lottery of the ‘Hell of the North’ he was unable to call on his Radioshack teammates to help to control the pace this week.

Vanmarcke had gone away from the leading group with Het Nieuwsblad runner-up Stijn Vandenbergh as Cancellara began to come through realising perhaps that attack was the best form of defence. Over the final few sections of pave there was speculation that Cancellara was struggling following crashes suffered in the previous week.

Cancellara had demonstrated his ability to break from a group and then time trial to victory already including last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. As he dug in today and blew the group apart one rider failed to stick to the script; Zdenek Stybar. Stybar stuck to Cancellara’s wheel like glue as they reeled in Vandenbergh and Vanmarcke. This represented a potential reversal of fortune for Omega Pharma Quick Step, the chance of at least one rider on the podium at worst following Tom Boonen’s withdrawl, perhaps even a one two.

Fate intervened and heart-break for OPQS in the closing stages perhaps overshadowed only by what followed inside the Roubaix velodrome. First Vandenbergh last in line of the four crashed after hitting a spectator on the pave. Worse still Stybar, pinged pinball style from one side to the other of the next section of pave. He remained upright but lost time, momentum and arguably motivation to continue.

Cancellara’s often used complaint that rivals stay in his wheel could not be aimed at Vanmarcke who took his turn in the lead when many armchair fans, VCSE included, were pleading for him not to, favouring the underdog in the situation. The Cancellara Vanmarcke game of cat and mouse continued into the velodrome advantage swapped back and forth and speed reduced to the extent that the pursuers were able to catch up to within a lap by the end.

Vanmarcke, arguably the stronger in the sprint finish, wanted Cancellara to blink first but by the final corner decided he would have to go for it. Whether or not Cancellara gained some ‘draft’ from riders on the track a lap behind isn’t clear and  head on the victor wasn’t even clear until Cancellara threw his arms aloft. Replays showed things more clearly and Vanmarcke’s reaction on the line made his disappointment apparent.

Vanmarcke attempts to put a brave face on things on the podium were in vain as he blinked back the tears that showed the emotion he felt at missing out on career making victory. Cancellara becoming a three-time winner of Paris Roubaix and adding to the results that have made him the leader of the world tour should be celebrated but for VCSE Paris Roubaix 2013 will always be about Sep Vanmarcke.

For great racing choose the Basque country

Some of the best racing of the season so far took place in the Tour of the Basque Country this week. The weather deterioated as the climbs got steeper during the week. Spanish races tend to favour the steepness over height and these stages were no exception with three days of climbing and summit finishes following the early sprints won consecutively by Orica Green Edge.

Alberto Contador is looking fairly mortal this year and Saxo Bank will need to carry out a detailed post mortem after a relatively poor showing from a tour strength squad that included Nicolas Roche and Mick Rogers.

Sky should feel pleased with their return after only being able to field six riders. Joe Dombrowski looked the strongest he has done so all season although VCSE feels he is probably unlikely to be selected for the grand tours this year. Vasil Kiryenka looked super strong again all week as he led Richie Porte and Sergio Henao and generally bossed the peloton.

Team of the week however was Caja Rural. Amets Turruka’s breakaways to win the King of the Mountains and points jersey delivered the metaphorical finger to his erstwhile employers at Euskaltel Euskadi who had a week to forget.

Getting so very close to a win in stage five for Caja Rural was neo pro Omar Fraile. In every kind of the worst weather Fraile stayed away from the peloton until the final climb but unlike so many riders who get swallowed up in these situations he fought on and kept his place in the leading group to finish 15th.