So we’re already a quarter way through the 2016 season and I’m feeling pretty conscious that I haven’t written a great deal about everything that’s taken place since Tirreno and Paris Nice a few weeks back. We’ve had the rivals for this years grand tours line up in the Volta a Catalunya, a couple of semi-classics in Belgium and the first of the monuments; Milan San Remo. While there are stories to be told about all of these races everything has been overshadowed in the last few days by the death of two riders in separate events last weekend.
On Saturday Belgian rider Daan Myngheer suffered a heart attack after collapsing during that day’s stage of the Criterium International on Corsica. His death was announced on Monday evening just 24 hours after another Belgian Antoine Demoitie died in hospital after being run over (following a crash) by one of the race motos during Gent Wevelgem. Losing both riders is a tragedy but it’s the circumstances surrounding Demoitie’s fatal accident that has caused a wider discussion. Rider safety is a topic that’s been simmering along since last year when there was the first of many incidents where riders came off worse due to altercations with either a race support car or moto. Irony probably isn’t appropriate here but I haven’t read anything that suggests that Demoitie’s accident was avoidable; his team have even released a statement to that effect. Nevertheless it’s all too clear that in a contest between a rider and a car or moto, it’s the guy (or girl) on the bike who’s going to come off worst.
That said I’m not sure what can be done to make things significantly safer. Right now with things feeling pretty raw it’s easy to forget that the potential risks for riders from cars, motos and everything else from dogs without leads to street furniture have existed for years. While crashes like the one that took out several riders at last years Pais Vasco could easily have been prevented (poorly signed road furniture caused that one), it’s hard to see how every potential risk can be eliminated. I won’t disagree that some potential risks could be mitigated but in the week before Demoitie’s accident the same commentators who mourned his loss were bemoaning the lack of moto camera feeds in another race. I’m not diminishing what’s happened; I just don’t think there are quick or easy solutions.
Racing a bike has enough risk and potential injurious outcomes without riders wondering if they’re likely to be hit by an errant vehicle from the race caravan. The really enlightened solutions probably won’t emerge in the immediate aftermath of these two tragic deaths.
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.
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.
Christopher doesn’t like Vincenzo; he thinks that Vincenzo shouldn’t have ridden off when Christopher had a stone caught in his bike’s wheel. Vincenzo had a falling out with Christopher as he thought he was to blame for Vincenzo falling off with a lot of other riders. Then there’s Nairo. Nairo likes Christopher but thinks that he should have beaten him in a race that they had in France last month.
In recent years the Vuelta a Espana seems to have become the grand tour for riders with scores to settle. In 2012 it was Alberto Contador’s first race back after his ban and last year the same rider went head to head with Chris Froome after their Tour de France appearances were curtailed by injury. Vincenzo Nibali is returning to the the land of his first grand tour win in 2010 but (also) where he was denied a ‘doble’ in 2013 when Chris Horner took an unheralded victory. Last year the Vuelta might not have truly been worthy of the title of ‘unofficial’ GC rider world championships but it was an awesome prelude to the real thing that took place in France in last month.
This years Tour line up pitted all of the grand tour winners of recent years (bar Horner) and should have provided a definitive answer on who is (currently) the ‘greatest’. And yet the 2015 edition of the Vuelta will see the metaphorical “Did you spill my pint?” shenanigans continuing as Nibali attempts to prove that his 2014 Tour win was achieved on merit and Quintana seeks to demonstrate that he can outclimb Froome to win his second grand tour. Whoever triumphs in this contest, the question to see who is the ‘best’ will rumble on into another year. With Contador absent could Froome et al really claim to be the world’s #1 GC rider?
Claiming that rider X is the ‘best’ rider is something of a red herring in reality. It would be more accurate to say rider X is the best rider now. Contador was arguably the strongest rider going into last years Tour and was superior to Froome when they met again in the Vuelta. He was able to continue that form into the Giro this year; almost winning the race single handedly. But by July he appeared fatigued and was certainly unable to respond when Froome attacked as early as stage 3. Froome, despite his second Tour win, may not be the favourite for the 2015 Vuelta. As I wrote here his victory was delivered on the back on early time gains on his opponents that were defended as the race went on. The appeal of a Tour / Vuelta double will be in the minds of Froome and the Sky team but I suspect that a win here would still take second place over a successful defence of the 2016 Tour. If you go purely on how he finished the Tour you would put your money on Quintana to win the Vuelta. If Alejandro Valverde reprises his super domestique role from the Tour I would shorten those odds further still.
So what of Nibali. The lustre of his 2014 Tour victory had become very faded by the third week of this years race and was only partly salved by his stage win where he took advantage of Froome’s stone in wheel mishap. Astana bring Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa to the Vuelta and if the plan is to replicate the strategy that came so close to derailling Contatdor at the Giro Nibali could be a factor. The issue for the team in the Giro however was that the team leader (Aru) was off peak for much of the race. It doesn’t matter how well you can decimate the other GC teams if your leader can’t deliver the killer blow and that question mark will hang over Nibali as the race gets under way. Astana rider’s performance in the Vuelta may well be of more interest longer term as I think Nibali’s results will determine where he races in 2017 and with which team.
Tejay van Garderen leads the second tier of GC riders to watch; returning after his DNF at the Tour. I don’t think we’ll see the BMC rider on the podium here but he could go well in the Andorra based stage 11 as he’s an experienced rider at altitude (he was winning the USA Pro Challenge this time last year and in 2013). Joaquim Rodriguez can claim that stage as his ‘local’ and quite a few people have tipped him to go well in the race. I’m less convinced; leaving aside the motivation factor that this is his home tour I just don’t think that Purito has the legs for victory in a three week stage race.
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.
I normally enjoy both of the week long early season stage races but a number of distractions over the last couple of weeks kept me from seeing much in the way of live racing. Fortunately, Eurosport gives me plenty of opportunities to catch up via their highlights programme. Out of the two races I think the one that provided the most interest was Paris Nice, particularly after Chris Froome’s late pull out from Tirreno denied us the next instalment of his match up with Alberto Contador. Paris Nice 2015 returned to its traditional format with an opening prologue and finishing with the Col d’Eze TT. And in a repeat of the last time the race followed this format in 2013 Richie Porte took his second overall win and stage victories on the only summit finish and the Col d’Eze.
Other than going down briefly, descending in poor conditions on the penultimate stage Porte looked like the real deal when it mattered without actually holding the race lead until he finished on Sunday. The holder of the yellow jersey for much of the race was world champion Michael Kwiatowski, the winner of the prologue and well looked after by his Etixx teammates through much of the early stages. Kwiatowski, who is the Polish TT champion was only a second down on Porte going into the last stage but he couldn’t match Porte’s pace in the TT.
If we base things purely on this outcome Porte looks ready to challenge for the GC in this year’s Giro and barring accidents he shouldn’t have his ambitions to lead a team in grand tour overturned by Sky’s need to protect Chris Froome in the Tour (as happened in 2013). If early season form is anything to go by Sky look in fantastic shape grand tour wise with real strength in depth and enough talent to potentially challenge in the Giro and Tour. For Kwiatowski, things don’t look quite so clear GC wise. Tony Martin showed that the massive pulls he put in during last years Tour were not a one off, but he’s really not the kind of climbing domestique that Kwiatowski will need to protect him in a three week grand tour. Of course, none of this could be part of the plan for Etixx although I suspect that the team will look for a decent showing if they’re unable to land one of the monuments in the next few weeks.
Elsewhere it was honours even in the battle to be the best French sprinter with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare finishing ahead of each other twice in the bunch finishes. Neither managed a win (a second place apiece) with Bouhanni edging Demare with his placings. Bouhanni needs to win to add weight to his claims that he should have been the supported rider at FDJ last year. Demare as the rider who stayed has to justify his team’s decision to back him ahead of the other rider. Of course it’s still early days, but I don’t expect either rider to kick on in 2015 in the same way as Elia Viviani say.
The winner of Saturday’s stage into Nice was Lotto rider Tony Gallopin. While the French rider probably didn’t have the time trialling chops to protect a lead of less than a minute from Porte up the Col d’Eze he did show that last years performance during the Tour in the Vosges wasn’t a one off. For a team that’s likely to feed off scraps in 2015 it’s likely that Gallopin will be one of the big hopes to deliver a breakaway win.
Tirreno Adriatico 2015
Tirreno was the lesser of the two races for me this year. I enjoyed Wout Poels breakaway win on stage 5. I think he’s a great signing for Sky and the teams line up for the Volta Catalunya this week suggests that Poels will be one of Chris Froome’s key supporters at the Tour. As Poels took the race lead as well as the stage win on Saturday I found myself wondering if he could actually go for the win. All of this daydreaming was proved to be just that within 24 hours as Nairo Quintana delivered the kind of emphatic win that characterised his Giro win last year. The weather was pretty Giro like as well with the last few km’s ridden in blizzard conditions. Quintana obviously didn’t feel the cold and he looked about as happy and animated as I have ever seen him winning by 41 seconds and taking the race lead. Vincenzo Nibali, in comparison, looked like he was having a horrible time and would rather be anywhere else than the race he won as recently as 2013. Another rider who enjoyed a less than stellar Tirreno was Alberto Contador. Lack of form or lack of Froome. Who knows? For the other two grand tour winners of 2014 it was a week to forget.
After I semi wrote him off in my last post Peter Sagan took the final bunch sprint in pouring rain on Monday. Actually, I was reflecting on the increased pressure Sagan is under to deliver a big win to justify is multi-million Euro contract at Tinkoff Saxo but the win will restore some confidence to the rider. Other commentators who can draw on better connections with the team are suggesting that Sagan is bullish about his chances of landing a monument in 2015, but I’m still not convinced that it will happen this Spring. I’ll predict here that Sagan’s best showing in the monuments in 2015 (other than placing in Milan San Remo) will be later in the year in the Giro d’Lombardia.
It was good to see MTN Quhbeka get a result with Steve Cummings finishing just behind Contador with 6th place on GC. MTN have retained the services of Brian Smith in 2015 and he’s signed some big(ish) names for the African team. I’m not entirely sure how all of these riders are going to gel and even less clear on how they intend to win. Gerard Ciolek’s breakout win for the team in the 2013 edition of MSR put them firmly on the world stage and if nothing else the profile has been further raised by Smith’s signings for 2015. Invites to the grand tours have followed, but unlike 2009 where Smith also had a hand in the launch of the Cervelo Test Team these riders don’t look like they will deliver a repeat of Ciolek’s monument. I think there are too many sprinters and these aren’t riders who have been winning regularly either. I would really like to see MTN go well as I like a lot of the personalities involved in the team but I think they will be living off scraps in 2015 too. They do have the best looking bikes in the peleton though!
Paris Nice in particular started with the release of the CIRC report looming in the background. The headline pulled from the 200 plus page document was the “..90% of the peloton are doping” and this made most newspapers, radio and TV reports. If this claim is to be believed it’s not great news for the sport. As I have commented previously the challenge for the sport is to provide stories that will attract sponsors into the sport. We have seen new team sponsors this year and there’s a real resurgence in interest in countries like Germany who pretty much abandoned coverage after the doping scandals of the late 2000’s. The situation remains fragile though and how riders, teams and the UCI deal with the fallout from CIRC will be incredibly important for the sport to grow.
Taking women’s cycling as an example. The UCI have delivered some improvements to the race schedule and there seems to be an appetite to show more of the women’s races in 2015. Achieving parity with the men is not helped by negative stories coming from the men’s peloton. Like it or not, women’s cycling will continue to rely on the trickle down of investment and interest in the men’s for the next year or two. It goes without saying that potential investment lost to world tour and pro conti teams will impact on the women’s peloton too. Not least the suggestion that (at least) each world tour team should run a ladies team with a full race programme as well.
The 90% comment was polarizing as so much of the quotes in the report were unattributed. While riders (past and present) subsequently revealed that they had spoken to the CIRC committee, Chris Froome was the only current rider that allowed his name to go into the published document. Thankfully, Froome wasn’t made the lightning rod as a result of his preparedness to put his name to the report. I have been critical of Sky’s use of TUE’s (one of the major examples given in the report of where there is huge potential for abuse) and I though it was interesting that Froome withdrew from Tirreno this year citing a chest infection. Would this have happened 12 months ago? As I say, whatever people might think of Froome and / or Sky I thought he deserved some credit for putting his name to the report.
Of course, there were many conflicting views as to whether or not the report had gone far enough in both revealing and / or confirming some of the doping stories surrounding the sport and what should be done to improve the situation. My own take is that the report didn’t reveal much that was new and perhaps that was why the recommendations had a lightweight feel. Credit to Brian Cookson for commissioning the report as I couldn’t imagine this happening previously at the UCI. That in itself is progress.
There are some commentators who believe that anyone connected to doping in the past should be unable to take part in the sport. While I understand the view I take a more pragmatic approach that recognises that it would be pretty much impossible to unpick cycling apart in such away. I think there remains an opportunity to provide riders and staff past and present with the platform to ‘fess up, even if this would be a somewhat flawed process. Say, rider A a current member of the peloton comes forward and admits doping previously. Where is the statute of limitations that says that the rider should be banned now for something they did previously, one year ago? Two? Of course this is where the ‘ban them all’ approach seems appealing, but my gut feel is that it’s likely that in the not too recent past 90% of the peloton were doping. I don’t think that the sport would survive the loss of so many riders. That doesn’t excuse the offence or mean that I think that everyone who doped previously should be given a hall pass. i just think that the approach and solution as far as doping catharsis is concerned is a lot more nuanced.
A final CIRC related thought. Brian Cookson (and others) have come out strongly against Lance Armstrong taking part in Geoff Thomas’ cancer charity ride that will take place ahead of this years Tour. Thomas, an ex professional footballer is another cancer survivor and I was pleased to see him taking a stand in favour of Armstrong’s continued involvement. I have no issue with the sanctions that Armstrong faces as a cyclist, even extending to his wish to participate in Ironman’s. However, I cannot see how anyone can deny Armstrong’s cancer. Thomas discusses Armstrong’s presence as a part of his rehabilitation in the cancer community. While the vehicle in this case is a bike I think the decision to involve Armstrong or not belongs with Thomas and the charity he is raising money for. Some people may see this as yet another example of Armstrong’s cynicism but i’m prepared to take his professed motivation at face value on this one.
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.
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.
There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.
Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”
Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its 3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.
Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.
The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.
VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.
What’s up with this picture?
Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised) and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.
Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.
It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.
Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.
A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.
For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.
There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.
Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.
Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.
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.
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.
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’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.