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.

Unhealthy connections

Tour de France 2015 – First Rest Day 

I had planned to write a short(ish) post ahead of the second full week of this year’s Tour on the speculation (confirmed by the rider himself yesterday) that Richie Porte would leave Team Sky at the end of the season. Ivan Basso opening the Tinkoff press conference with the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer pushed possible Porte moves off the metaphorical VCSE ‘front page’.

Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso

Getting the Basso announcement more or less hot off the press on my timeline I was disconcerted by my own (initial) reluctance to ‘say’ something on my own feeds. My immediate reaction, born out of my closest family having suffered was empathetic. No one deserves to suffer with this disease. Then I started to wonder. Basso is a rider with a ‘past’, part of the generation of pro cyclists that ‘competed’ when the doping arms race was at it’s height. How long would it be before people started to join the dots between today’s news; Basso; cancer and Lance. Having seen the very dignified way that he handled the press conference I’m glad that I didn’t think for too long about putting out my own (very small) message of support for Ivan Basso.

The dots have been joined however. It’s perhaps only been 5% of the commentary, but it’s out there. If Lance’s cancer was caused by doping then could the same be true for Basso? The aptly named ‘Tin Foil Hat’ brigade thought that this was the story today. There has been a LOT written about Lance, his cancer and his doping. There has been a lot written about whether or not the former was brought about by the latter. I don’t think I have actually read anything conclusive in the many iterations of the Lance Armstrong morality tales that litter my bookshelf.

I am something of a contrarian about doping. As much as I support a ban for anyone caught using PED’s I would equally advocate that it’s possible for a rider to return to the sport following said ban. I am more exercised by the misuse of TUE’s (an ongoing issue in the peloton) that I am about a confessed (and one hopes ex) doper riding and racing. Ivan Basso might represent the worst of pro cycling as someone who doped but there is (for me at least) much to be said for his subsequent repentance. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have been given the chance of a couple more years ‘in the sun’ with Tinkoff. Today’s news may bring about retirement sooner than expected but I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Ivan Basso on his bike.

Forza Ivan! 

Continue reading Unhealthy connections

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

Bring me the casquette of Bradley Wiggins

Wiggins raises the hour mark

It’s an indication of Sir Bradley Wiggins fame outside of cycling circles that in breaking the hour record on Sunday he was on the front page of virtually all of the national press the following day. Alex Dowsett, who had set the previous mark only five weeks ago had barely warranted a mention. This is less about the merits of Dowsett’s short lived tenure as record holder, more so Wiggins place in the firmament of British public life as a ‘character’; immensely talented but not without (forgivable) flaws. Wiggins has made cycling ‘cool’ in a way that only Wiggins can with a strong sense of style and a nod to the history and traditions of the sport.

Sir Brad - will go for Olympic gold again in 2016
Sir Brad – will go for Olympic gold again in 2016

Sunday’s record attempt wasn’t Wiggins first appearance in the understated Rapha kit of his eponymous new team. There was a cameo at the Tour de Yorkshire a few weeks ago with all the air of a reluctantly fulfilled contractual obligation. This was the real thing though and there’s always a feeling of anticipation when Wiggins sets about a ‘target’. No one was in much doubt beforehand that Wiggins would set a new record; all of the discussion revolved around by how much. There was even a suggestion that he had got close to 55 kilometres during a practice run. Without any other leading riders announcing an attempt so far, the consensus was for a distance that could stand as a landmark for the foreseeable future.

In the event Wiggins did not quite reach (the potentially iconic) 55km but he finished comfortably ahead of Dowsett. There was much talk of atmospheric pressures in the velodrome in the aftermath but Wiggins appeared happy with the outcome. Dowsett can afford to be philosophical too. As he went back to his day job on domestique duties for Alejandro Valverde at the Criterium du Dauphine Wiggins was bestowing his wish that Dowsett should go for the record again.

Dowsett has time on his side and it’s entirely possible that Rohan Dennis could have another go too. Dennis is at the Dauphine with Dowsett and while i’m writing this has just taken the race lead following today’s Team Time Trial. The missing elephants in the hour record room are Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara. Martin is in France too while Cancellara continues his rehabilitation following his accident in E3 during the classics. Neither has shown much interest in an attempt on the hour record so far but I would suggest Martin as the more likely of the two, perhaps waiting until the end of the season to do so. I suspect Cancellara’s priorities to remain focused on the classics; the records in his sights to take more wins in the Ronde and at Roubaix than any other rider.

Wiggins will now focus on the track in the run up to his swan song at the 2016 Rio Olympics where he will race the team pursuit. He’s announced his intention to contest the individual event at the world championships next year today alongside the team event. The main challenge for him will be whether or not Team GB can peak in time for another Olympic cycle, something that could be doubtful after this years results.

I didn’t see all of the coverage of the Wiggins hour on Sunday so I missed whether or not there was actually any footage of Johan Bruyneel shown. Bruyneel, who went out of his way to say that he brought his tickets to the event, wasn’t the only (let’s say) controversial attendee. Pat McQuaid was there too. Whether or not he was a VIP guest, Bruyneel’s presence fired up the Tin Hat Twitterati to start making 2+2=5. I’m not even sure that Wiggins was aware that Bruyneel was there but he looked genuinely star struck when he was congratulated by Miguel Indurain interrupting the UCI presentation to him to go over to the former record holder. There’s a real kinship apparent between the two; Wiggins went out of his way to acknowledge a token from ‘Big Mig’ when he won the 2012 Tour.

On a final (sartorial) note I am now firmly in the ‘yes’ camp as far as the Wiggins team kit goes. Rapha must have been doing a roaring trade on Sunday judging by the amount of Wiggins casquettes I saw in the crowd. Up until now I wasn’t too sure whether or not I liked the jersey but unsurprisingly Wiggins himself makes it look good. No stranger to a bit of custom kit you can’t help thinking that he knows exactly how far to push the design envelope and as a result comes up with something that looks distinctly different and at the same time understated. Obviously as a good disciple of the Velominati I’m not about to start sporting a Wiggins jersey but you can put me down for a casquette.

Criterium du Dauphine

Here’s a thing; live coverage of the Dauphine on ITV4 and Eurosport. I have been a bit thrown by the early start and finishes so far but it will be a handy primer for discovering who’s in form ahead of the Tour. Things don’t get ‘lumpy’ until Thursday although tomorrows stage has a few cat 3 and 4 climbs.

Watching the ITV coverage today (is the plan to drop Phil and Paul finally now that we have Ned and Dave?) the suggestion was that Sky had endured a near disaster in losing 35 seconds on the TTT. I think that’s over stating things a little bit (do the ratings need boosting with a little bit of dramatic licence?). We will have a better idea of Chris Froome’s form and perhaps just as importantly mindset after three days in the mountains. Of course Froome hasn’t raced much this year and hasn’t defended his titles from last year’s warm up events successfully either. It is important that he puts down some markers here but for me Froome’s chances in the 2015 Tour depend more on how he negotiates a tricky first week in this year’s race.

There’s a strong GC field with only Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana missing from the likely contenders for next month. The aforementioned Rohan Dennis could be an interesting watch after going into the leaders jersey. Tejay Van Gardaren has only just left Cadel Evans in the twilight home for former GC riders and here comes another rival for team leader in the shape of the former hour record holder. A week long race is the right kind of length for Dennis but it’s surely unlikely he will be given his chance here.

Pretty much all of the world tour teams have a GC rider who is capable of winning the event so it will be interesting to see if it does turn out to be one the Tour favourites or if someone might sneak up on the rails like last year’s defending champion Andrew Talansky.

Wiggins Hour Record photo by Andrew Last on Flickr 

Now for the Tour – VCSE wraps up the 2015 Giro

Giro d’Italia 2015 

While the final outcome never looked in doubt, the final week of the 2015 edition of the Giro d’Italia served up some epic stages as the race wound its way from the Dolomites to the Alpes via the Italian lakes.

Alberto Contador - Now for the Tour?
Alberto Contador – Now for the Tour?

Alberto Contador took the GC without relinquishing his grip on the Maglia Rosa he had worn since stage 5 (other than the briefest of loans to Fabio Aru). Contador had taken a lead of 2.35 into the final week over Aru but the 42 seconds that the Astana rider took back by the end of the race didn’t begin to tell the story of the mixed fortunes for the GC contenders as week 3 progressed.

In my previous post covering the first two weeks of the race I highlighted the potential risks for Contador if Astana were able to isolate him on the mountain stages that would dominate the final week. Aru and his teammate (this year’s Aru if you like) Mikel Landa had been ably supported by the rest of the Astana line up whereas Contador had often gone from having his Tinkoff domestiques alongside him one minute and gone the next. It’s been a theme of this year’s Giro for the GC riders to lose and gain time based on another’s misfortune and as the peloton regrouped after the rest day for a stage featuring the Mortirolo as its centrepiece Contador was about to be tested. It’s a bit of an unwritten rule that the race leader won’t be attacked if he suffers a mechanical although Contador has ‘form’ for ignoring this particular convention*. When he punctured ahead of the Mortirolo Astana attacked and Contador found himself at the bottom of the climb isolated and losing time to Aru. Contador leaves the Giro for the next leg of his grand tour ‘double’ without a stage win but his ride over the Mortirolo to overhaul Aru and end his hopes of taking his maiden grand tour victory was surely one of the most memorable performances in stage racing. Aru hadn’t ever looked like he could capitalise on the collective strength Astana held over Tinkoff but that shouldn’t diminish Contador’s ride. Fuelled perhaps by anger that he had been attacked, whatever Contador was on clearly worked as he passed Aru and began to put time into him. The tongue in cheek suggestion that Landa could become the GC hope for Astana looked to be solidifying into a genuine consideration as he road clear in the final km’s to take his second stage win in a row. As he leapfrogged Aru on GC, Contador had increased his lead by more than four minutes.

Contador increased his lead further on stage 18, won in a fine breakaway by Philippe Gilbert as people began to speculate just how much time might Aru lose on the final two stages so out of sorts did he seem.  Contador described passing Aru and seeing he had “..an ugly face” (the literal translation from Spanish) so great was his suffering on the climbs. Now Astana gave the outward appearance of turning to Landa but there was a sting in the tail for Contador as Aru went from seemingly a beaten man to world beater in the space of 24 hours. Would Contador have lost as much time (without the GC ever being seriously in doubt) if he had the support of a teammate on the last two stages? Perhaps not, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if there had been one more mountain stage after Sestriere on Saturday.

Continue reading Now for the Tour – VCSE wraps up the 2015 Giro

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)

Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

Continue reading Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Going around in CIRC’les – VCSE’s Racing Digest #40

Paris Nice 2015

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!

CIRC report

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.

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