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

No Fairytales in ‘Hell’

Tour of Flanders & Paris Roubaix 2016

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

Tom Boonen - Denied!
Tom Boonen – Denied!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of other mentions.. 

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

The little guy and the Dutch ‘Big Mig’

Vuelta a Espana 2015 week 1 review

Who knows who it was who coined the phrase; “The Tour is the Tour”. This is the catch all that is used to explain the goings on that characterise the world’s greatest stage race from the guy who dances around the finishing kilometre dressed as a giant ham sandwich; the drunken Dutch that spend a week on Alpe d’Huez; the fact that this is the only professional bike race that transcends professional bike racing.

Esteban Chavez
Esteban Chavez

But isn’t the Vuelta also The Vuelta? Doesn’t it have its own idiosyncrasies; those things that make it unique? Those features that are just so, well; Vueltaesque. Previewing a grand tour, I’m always looking for half a dozen or so stages that I think will be interesting for the armchair fan. These aren’t always the stages that should be pivotal on paper, although inevitably they’re likely to be included. But the Vuelta can serve up something that inevitably makes me think “Why didn’t I pick this one?” as what appeared to be an innocuous climb turns out to be a sting in the tail. Take stage 6 from last year with the freshly laid strip of tarmac that led straight upwards to La Zubia. The Cumbres Verdes climb might only have been 4.6km but its 13% ramps delivered some of the most exciting racing of the opening week. I didn’t expect much from Sunday’s stage that climbed Alto de Puig Lloren twice but it was one of the most exciting days racing I have seen this year on a climb that was a little over 4km in length (albeit with 19% sections!)

Of course the route just provides the stage (in the theatrical sense) and the riders are the players in the same context. Chris Horner could hardly have been described as an emerging talent in 2013 but whatever you choose to think about the merits of his unheralded victory two years ago it was so surprising it made for compelling viewing and the only grand tour that was genuinely decided on the final stage in 2013. The dramatis personae listed ahead of this years race, the Froome’s, Quitana’s and Valverde’s have only had cameos to play so far. The stars of the show in the first week have been comparative understudies; Esteban Chavez the almost childlike Orica Green Edge climber and Giant Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin.

There was a fair amount of chatter about Orica beginning to move their sights towards the grand tours although much of this had focused on the Yates twins. The announcement that the team had signed Amets Turruka from Caja Rural as a climbing domestique ahead of the Vuelta backed this narrative but it’s hard to believe that the team expected Chavez to have a week like this one. Not one but two stage wins and the leaders jersey for six out of ten days of racing must have been beyond the teams wildest dreams surely. They didn’t just have Chavez to celebrate either with Caleb Ewan taking his maiden grand tour stage win. Chavez played pass the parcel on GC with Tom Dumoulin who had already come to the fore this year as a rival to Tony Martin but certainly not as a grand tour overall contender. Chavez has been a joy to watch on and off the bike and you have to go with the instinct that says he was praising his rival when he described Dumoulin’s reclaiming of the race lead as “unbelievable” almost every other word. Dumoulin’s explanation is that he feels good and that he has lost some weight ahead of the race but more cynical eyebrows might be raised if he is still in pole position after four cat 1 and one HC climb on Wednesday.

The home fans (and the wider audience) find Chavez easy to fall for. He has been charmingly humble about his prospects and it is hard to see how he could prevail against Sky and Movistar at the very least over two more weeks of racing and arguably the toughest week to come this week. The locals ought to be able to take Dumoulin to their hearts as well; a time trailing grand tour winner? I’m pretty certain Spain has had one of those in the not too distant past!

So what of the pre-race favourites. So far not much. They have seemed content to only briefly test their firepower; a stage win for Valverde and Froome going close on Sunday only to  be overhauled by Dumoulin at the death. Vincenzo Nibali has capped his miserable season by getting himself disqualified for riding on a team car on stage 2. What Nibali did may or may not be the worst excess of cheating, even in this race, but he was caught (on camera) and was gone without much in the way of genuine protest. He was remarkably prescient on the inconsistency of fines for transgressions within the race when Nacer Bouhanni escaped a similar sanction for an even more blatant car surf the following day by which time Nibali was already licking his wounds at home.

Bouhanni has gone now too. The race has been attritional for sprinters in particular whether that be through injury or simply practical longevity concerns. Ewen has withdrawn in much the same way as the Yates boys were protected at the Tour last year. In what was already a shallow field John Degenkolb might have been expected to fill his boots in much the same way as he has in previous years but he has been relatively quiet so far.

The first week of the 2015 Vuelta has delivered. The organisers might have preferred a Quintana or Valverde in the leaders jersey but in all other respects this years race has provided something for everyone from surprisingly challenging climbs to exciting emerging talents on GC. Tomorrow ought to be fireworks from start to finish as it’s difficult to imagine one team being able to control the race over that many climbs. After such an entertaining first half of the race it’s to be hoped that the rider who emerges from stage 11 at the head of the GC doesn’t grip the race lead too tightly. But the Vuelta is the Vuelta and no doubt there will be more surprises to come in the next ten days.

Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Froome dogged by doping questions

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome looked the strongest of the pre-race quartet of favourites for this years Tour de France going into the first rest day. The yellow jersey had survived a potentially risky week of classics lite stages and if anything done better than just survive even if some of the time gained on rivals was as a result of their misfortune. If anyone looked like cracking it was 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali who has suffered the ignominy of having his attacks ignored by Sky so much time he has lost. Alberto Contador found that he couldn’t follow Froome’s wheel as early as stage 3 climbing the Mur de Huy. Only Nairo Quintana has seemed able to go toe to toe with Froome; Movistar employing Alejandro Valverde as a very attacking domestique deluxe has at least ensured there’s a semblance that this year is not over yet.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – simultaneously avoiding piss wielding fans while answering doping questions

The risk for anyone describing Froome’s performance and daring to use a superlative has become the narrative for this years Tour. Just as in 2013  Froome’s performances have been accompanied by noises off about whether or not said performances have been achieved legally. It’s certainly ironic, given what we learned about the team in the off season, that Vincenzo Nibali’s 2014 victory received nothing like as much vitriol. I have a theory about this.

Froome and Sky have already effectively negated any possibility in a change in the outcome of this years race, such is his superiority over the rest of the field. Because he has ‘killed’ the race it’s inevitable that people want to know how it’s been done. Froome is dominant; his rivals appear unable to respond; the GC becomes a battle for second place and into the vacuum come the doping questions. Here’s another irony. When Froome was losing ground to Alberto Contador in last year’s Vuelta did anyone ask any doping questions then? So perhaps it’s about the rider and maybe the team too?

Let’s start with Froome. As a commited member of Team Wiggo I have never really warmed to him but I have massive respect for his performances. He still looks awful to me on his bike and maybe that’s another reason why he attracts the questions. In a sport and a country where they have a word for smoothness on a bike; souplesse, Froome is the souplesse antichrist. But should winning ugly mean that the performances should be doubted? The answer of course is ‘no’ but Froome has made the odd remark (as recently as Sunday) that adds fuel to the never ending debate. If I have a problem with Froome and the doping questions it’s this; undisclosed asthma and the use of TUE’s. I covered the subject in enough posts before but the asthma / TUE thing has provided enough smoke to allow the doping conspiracy theorists a pretty big bonfire that certainly won’t abate if Froome retains his lead and wins the Tour.

Which leads us on to his team. I felt the Sky selected a really interesting team for this years Tour. The make up of the team has a really strong British core and this seems to have engendered a bit of a bunker mentality from the team that trickles down to the predominantly British fans that support the team. I get that answering what appears to be the same question again and again becomes wearing after two weeks but this is what Sky signed up for when the entered the sport in 2010. It’s 100% down to the stated aim of winning clean that subliminally sets such a high bar for the team in the eyes of cycling fans as a whole. It’s almost as if with any other team there’s an expectation that they could be using PED’s. But with Sky things seem turned upside down in that if they say they’re going to win clean their performance is compared to teams that we tacitly set lower standards for and QED Sky must be doping.

This week the debate has evolved into how someone can use Froome’s power data to ‘prove’ he’s doping verses Froome releasing his data to ‘prove’ he isn’t. It’s all pretty unedifying stuff and I can only hope that Froome’s rivals can come up with something to animate the race this week otherwise the narrative will continue to be centred around does he or doesn’t he?

Based on what we have seen so far I’m not convinced that Froome can be challenged however. Quintana seems the rider most likely at this point but no one has really put in an attack that they have managed to make stick or to shake off Froome’s key lieutenants; Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas. Thomas has been man of the match so far for me. The versatility shown be the Welshman in navigating his team leader through the tricky opening stages and then often being the last man standing on the climbs has been superb.

Away from the circus surrounding Froome I was cheered by MTN Quhbeka taking their maiden Tour stage win through Steve Cummings. Whether or not his victory topped the team taking the KOM jersey earlier in the race doesn’t really matter. The team have thoroughly deserved their wild card.

So we go into the mountains again. I’m hoping we’ll have some racing to talk about at the end of it.

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

It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Tour de France 2015

Why bother shelling out a tenner for 228 pages of official guide when you can get the VCSE lowdown on this years Tour for nothing? 

Last year we had Yorkshire. Everyone said it was going to be good; even me (although I added a typically English caveat; weather permitting). And the sun did shine and it seemed like anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in riding a bike decided to find a spot by the roadside. I know, I was there. The grandest of Grand Departs has spawned its own three day stage race and made Utrecht’s job of hosting this years edition twice as hard. So why then as a (proud) Brit am I feeling a greater sense of anticipation ahead of this year’s Tour than last?

There might be another British* rider in yellow besides Chris Froome

While a lot of Brit fans were waiting to see who would be backing Froome over the next three weeks here in Essex we were looking to see if ‘our’ World Tour rider was going to France (via Holland). It’s easy to forget that Alex Dowsett’s ‘day job’, when he’s not breaking hour records is riding for Movistar. In the last couple of weeks the more eagle eyed among you might have spotted him on the flatter stages at Dauphine and the Route du Sud providing close protection for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. I still suspect Dowsett smarted from his omission from the Movistar squad for last years race that would have passed through some very familiar Essex roads on stage 3. Poor health was cited at the time but other than the obvious home ties last year it was harder to see why he would have been selected. This year is a completely different story. Besides the ‘obvious’ item on his 2015 palmares, Dowsett took overall at the Bayern Rundfahrt and he’s coming off another national TT championship win. The opening stage prologue isn’t quite the quintessential ‘ten’ of the Brit club scene but I think Movistar have picked him to have a go at taking the jersey. It won’t be easy but other than Giant’s Tom Dumoulin I can’t think of another rider that stage 1 couldn’t have been better scripted for.

A wide open green jersey / points competition

ASO have tweaked the points allocation again this year and that should suit the ‘pure’ sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. The big blonde German elephant in the room though is the missing Marcel Kittel. Is it illness? Lack of form? There have even been suggestions that Kittel has succumbed to the cyclist’s illness; depression. Whatever the reason, the rider that looked set to dominate the bunch gallops is absent and that means that the metaphorical sprinters ‘crown’ is up for grabs. Of course Kittel’s absence doesn’t automatically mean that Cavendish will reclaim the number one spot. There’s as much depth among the fast men as there is in this years GC field.

Let’s start with Alexander Kristoff. I posed the question of who could beat the Katusha rider after he claimed his second monument of his career by winning the Ronde earlier in the season. He’s been kept under wraps in the last few weeks (he didn’t contest his home championships) but you have to think he’s going to be tough to beat as it has felt at times as if all Kristoff has to do is turn up to a race in order to win. Not unlike a Mark Cavendish of old in fact. Cav looks like he’s in good touch too though; he rode an extremely untypical but nevertheless inspired solo effort in last weekends nationals in Lincoln. He looks as if he is peaking at the perfect time and isn’t July a good time to get your mojo back?

Another rider who could lay claim to that is Peter Sagan. A rider who has had to endure a stream of motivational messages that his team owner shares with the wider social media audience and possibly the worst national champs kit of recent years could be forgiven for crumbling under the weight of a $15M salary and expectation in the classics. Sagan took the GC along with bagging a stage win or so at this years Tour of California going head to head with Cavendish and I would expect Sagan to have to take the points where he has the advantage over Cavendish (on primes etc.) if he’s serious about another green jersey.

While it has been enjoyable to see Sagan in a place where he’s feeling like popping wheelies again I think this could be Kristoff’s year. I’m not as sure about the final showcase in Paris though; that one i’m giving to Cav.

Enough already.. what about the GC?

Dowsett in yellow. Kristoff v Cav. Mere aperitif’s to the main course that is this years GC battle. Last year we had Contador v Froome. This year we can add Nairo Quintana to the mix and that’s before we even mention last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali. I’m sure someone has got the ‘stat’ that says when these four last raced against one another (together). Me? Haven’t a clue, but whenever that was a lot has changed not least that each rider is now a grand tour winner.

Continue reading It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)

So this is my first post for getting on for a month. In previous years I would have written about the Ardennes classics, the Tour of Turkey and would be previewing the Giro about now. There’s even been an extra race added to the calendar with significant interest for British fans with last weekends Tour de Yorkshire. Trouble is I have found it really difficult to find anything good to say about the last month since Roubaix and I am going to try and explain why in this post.

Ardennes Classics

I find it a little hard to get too jazzed about the Ardennes races with the possible exception of Liege Bastogne Liege as they tend to be decided in the final few kilometres and even I can pass on the preceding 90 minutes of live coverage where nothing much will happen. Both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone will have their outcome determined by what happens on their signature climbs; the Cauberg and Mur de Huy respectively. OK the few minutes the riders feint, attack, fade or go clear on the ascents is often exciting but the results this year have been sadly predictable.

Alejandro Valverde
Alejandro Valverde

With the exception of Michael Kwiatowski timing his move to perfection on the finishing straight at Amstel the Ardennes races in 2015 have been about one rider alone; Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was second in Amstel and went one better at both La Fleche midweek and LBL the following Sunday. I have written about Valverde many times and in particular about his public lack of contrition about his ban following Operation Puerto. Interviewed in Pro Cycling this month he remains unwilling to tackle the subject of doping (past and present) and maintains a position that he was banned despite “..his arguments” that the presence of a bag of his blood didn’t indicate wrong doing. Of course it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that because Valverde was banned in 2010 he’s doping now, but it does stick in the throat that the rider who has figured so prominently in this years hilly classics is the poster boy for unrepentant dopers.

Only one other rider featured in the top ten finishers for all three Ardennes races; Etixx Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilppe who was runner up in La Fleche and LBL and 7th in Amstel. Obviously Valverde is a grand tour rider who is capable of hanging with the best of them through the Alps and Dolomites on a three week stage race but to deliver a second place and two wins says he was in the form of his life.. Or something.

So Valverde winning didn’t put me in the greatest of moods to crank out a thousand words extolling the virtues of the Ardennes classics. At least my bad luck was just confined to having to watch him take his victories. Previous LBL winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans didn’t even figure after a crash that took out several key contenders early on during the live feed. Neither rider is having a great season so far with early season injuries and illness getting compounded by these latest mishaps. Kwiatowski’s win in Amstel cements his versatility as a rider although I think he will need to decide if he’s going to be a GC rider or a one day specialist fairly soon as I think he will need to shed some timber if he’s going to become a genuine contender in the grand tours.

Continue reading Vino & Valverde don’t care (for a while I wasn’t sure that I did)

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

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..)