Swiss roll over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #27

Tour of Flanders 2014

“I’ve got this.. I’ve got this..” or words to that effect was Sep Vanmarcke’s message to his team car as he approached the finish line after 250 kilometres of racing at the Ronde. “No I haven’t” is what he should have said after he crossed the line in third place to Fabian Cancellara (OK, let’s be honest it was probably some Franco / Belge expletives).

Can I win Roubaix too? - Fabian Cancellara
Can I win Roubaix too? – Fabian Cancellara

Vanmarcke wasn’t the only one kicking himself. BMC’s Greg van Avermaet had gone away late on and it felt like he could go one better than his Het Nieuwsblad 2nd place from earlier in the year. This years Ronde came down to a sprint of the track variety (missing only track stands) and it was 2013 winner Cancellara who out foxed his rivals. A week away from Paris Roubaix his rivals must be wondering what they can do to deny Cancellara another win in next weeks race. Whether or not you think Spartacus possesses a sprint, the fact is Vanmarcke and van Avermaet (in particular) are decent quick men. Stijn Vandenbergh, an analogue rider against digital rivals recognised that in a four way sprint he would be favourite for fourth place and attacked first. Indicative of his place as Tom Boonen’s bag carrier, Vandenbergh gave up almost as soon as he started, sacrificing a lead that looked as if it could stick, as a lack confidence manifested itself immediately. Vandenbergh’s bid to escape might have lacked conviction but it looked most likely to succeed. Instead as the final few hundred metres disappeared beneath their wheels it was Cancellara who got the drop on the other three. Unlike last year, this wasn’t a victory to savour in the final kilometre’s Cancellara had to work for this one and the emotions weren’t released until he crossed the line and began punching the air.

Vanmarcke and van Avermaet rolled over in second and third and in disbelief; “what just happened”. The result is potential hex on both riders, experiencing another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. The positives are that both riders (and in fairness Vandenbergh too) have been consistent performers in the classics so far this year, but the fact is that this was a race both men could have won. It cannot be disputed either that Cancellara is the srongest rider in the classics right now and in the monuments when it really counts. It’s hard to see who’s going to beat him this year and Trek must feel vindicated in pulling out all of the stops to deny Sky taking him on last year when Radioshack finished as headline sponsor.

Having the numbers when the selection had taken place was no advantage for Omega Pharma Quick Step. The problem for QPQS was tactical. By the time it was clear that Tom Boonen was coming up short again, they lacked a rider who could take up the challenge of beating Cancellara. Boonen’s heavyweight shadow Vandenbergh had been sent up the road to cover van Avermaet’s late break, but as is so often the case he lacks the speed and guile to carve out a win for himself. Boonen, chasing a fourth Ronde victory may have believed until the last and that might be why the in form Niki Terpstra was released too late to catch the leading four.

Boonen wasn’t the only pre-race favourite who popped. Peter Sagan looked like he wished that the race distance had been about 50km less and was unable to go with Cancellara when the Trek team leader attacked. Given the choice Sagan would swap his E3 victory and the win that almost wasn’t in stage 1 of the Three Days of De Panne for a win in the Ronde. At 24 he can potentially be a classics contender for another ten years, but it seems that Sagan is subdued by the pressure to deliver a monument win. At least he will have a week to recover ahead of Paris Roubaix; the De Panne stage win looks extremely poor value if it was this that left Sagan without legs today.

This years edition was a bit of a crashfest with accidents ranging from the typical for a cobbled classic to the bizarre, such as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych getting unseated by a female spectator’s handbag. His teammate Stijn Devolder who had proved so valuable to Cancellara at E3 seemed to only feature on camera immediately after another mishap in an accident prone afternoon for the Belgian champion.

And so to your VCSE predictions. We tipped Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the our last post (http://tinyurl.com/pvkebup) and predicted that OPQS would be the strongest team. Geraint Thomas was an unlikely podium for Sky, but he was their best finisher in 8th place. Can we keep it up for Paris Roubaix next week? If you want to find out, follow the blog! Here’s a thought though; late entry to the Ronde Bradley Wiggins finished in 32nd place. Can he go better in the ‘hell of the north’ next Sunday?

Your world cup leader is..

Great to see Lizzie Armitstead leading the points table in the women’s World Cup. She finished second to Bols Dolmans teammate Ellen van Djik in the women’s Tour or Flanders today after winning the opening round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It’s been a great week for Lizzie as she signed a contract extension to 2016 with her Boels Dolmans team.

Tour of the Basque Country

Starts tomorrow! Last year’s edition was one of the highlights of the 2013 season with biblical rain and some outstanding rides from eventual winner Nairo Quintana and KOM Caja Rural’s Amets Txurruka. Quintana is missing this year; Movistar will be led by Alejandro Valverde. Ag2R have a potential double team in Jean-Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur to match up against previous grand tour winners Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal and Alberto Contador. There’s a strong Basque presence including (interestingly) Sky led by in form Mikel Nieve in the absence of Froome or Porte in what’s often seen as an important tune up for the Giro. With Quintana absent too, we shouldn’t read too much into this, but the race could be an opportunity for one of Sky’s new GC orientated signings (Phil Deignan is racing too) to raise themselves up the pecking order on the death star.

Who’s going to run the Ronde? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #26

E3 Harelbeke / Gent Wevelgem 

Fabian Cancellara looked pretty unhappy with second place at Milan San Remo and he was probably just as miffed at the two fingers held up to him by the peloton while defending his E3 title last Friday. Cancellara had ridden pretty much side by side with Tom Boonen for much of the race before an incident saw him get gapped by the leading group of riders.

Can he beat Spartacus? - Peter Sagan
Can he beat Spartacus? – Peter Sagan

OK, so not winning MSR counts as a failure if you’re in the first rank of classics specialists, but for anyone else second place in the longest one day classic would be something to celebrate (ask Ben Swift how he feels about finishing third!). Cancellara rolled in at E3 inside the top 10, over a minute down on winner Peter Sagan, but the way that he tore up the field trying to get back in touch with the leaders was incredible even for a rider like Spartacus. After passing through the middle of some groups as if they were going backwards, Cancellara eventually came across a teammate Stijn Devolder who put in his own monster turn to try and get his team leader back in the game.

Up the road were two Omega Pharma riders; the in form Niki Terpstra and Stiyn Vandenbergh, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Sagan. Terpstra was on and off his radio like an anxious mum waiting for her teenage son to come home. Boonen, no doubt out of sorts owing to the terrible news of his girlfriend miscarrying had lost touch and was slipping out of contention. Or was he? At one point Cancellara and Devolder had cajoled the chasers into life and got within 40 seconds of the leading four, but Boonen seemed to be a spent force.

While the OPQS boys were told to hurry up and wait, Sagan was doing his own Cancellara impression judging by the gesticulations he was making to his fellow escapee’s. As Cancellara often wonders, Sagan couldn’t see why Thomas, Terpstra and Vandenbergh weren’t riding with, if not for him. Obviously there was an advantage for Thomas (and the two Omega Pharma teammates depending on the message they were currently getting from their team car) to stay away, but if it came to a bunch sprint there was only ever going to be one winner. Terpstra and Vandenbergh were undone by the conflicting messages and perhaps the Dutchman by his win earlier in the week. Thomas didn’t have that excuse to use and if he had anything in the tank as the race entered the final kilometres surely he should have attempted a break of his own, rather than covering the ones tried by Terpstra and Vandenbergh. Surely he didn’t think he could take Sagan in a sprint to the line? Whatever he did think, the outcome was always going to be a Sagan win.

You might think that winning on Friday would have given the Cannondale rider a hall pass for Sunday’s Gent Wevelgem, the race he won in convincing fashion last year with the famous wheelie over the line followed by the infamous bottom pinching incident a week later at the Ronde. OK, so Sagan didn’t win, but third place isn’t to shabby (ask Ben Swift how he feels about third place again). The race was won by Giant Shimano’s John Degenkolb who had been much fancied for MSR. Its tempting to wonder if Degenkolb was feeling the possibility of getting usurped by yet another product of the Giant sprint programme who was winning for fun in Catalunya. Second went to VCSE MSR tip Arnaud Demare; the race being something of a sprinters classic after all.

So ahead of this weekends Tour of Flanders who’s likely to figure and who’s likely to win? Let’s deal with the contenders first. The best team will be Omega Pharma. Boonen doesn’t look his best, but Terpstra and the rest of the supporting cast look super strong. They will have riders at the front with or without Boonen, but if Boonen does falter they will need to think a lot faster to get the win. A good each way would be Sep Vanmarcke who’s been in touch in a lot of the races and has a couple of top 10’s in E3 and Gent going into the race. Sky won’t be anywhere, unless Thomas can deliver an unlikely podium. It’s not really a race for Ian Stannard who’s also injured after a crash at Gent.

Which leaves us Sagan and Cancellara. If Cancellara hadn’t been held up at E3 VCSE suspects he would have rode away from the field in a repeat of last years race. It’s hard to imaging Cancellara would have waited for Sagan if he had been in the group of four last Friday. This isn’t to say Sagan’s not strong. A win and third place in three days is a great performance by any standard, but for all of his ability to read a race and to ride unsupported he needs a sprint to win. Cancellara won’t give him that opportunity on Sunday.

Volta a Catalunya / Criterium International

So Giant have yet another sprint talent in their ranks to go with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. Luka Mezgec took three out of the seven stages available, albeit against a second / third rank of sprinters in Catalunya. The race had promised much with top BC talent lining up including Froome, Contador and Rodriguez.

Froome had missed Tirreno Adriatico with back problems so this was his first race since defending his Tour of Oman title back in February. Stage 3 was the first mountain stage and the winner was Rodriguez with a trademark late dig to outdistance his rivals and take the race lead overall. Froome had attempted to ride away himself but was soon caught and then overhauled by Purito, Contador, Nairo Quintana and perhaps the biggest surprise Tejay Van Garderen.

Van Garderen was the winner the following day in the weather effected (at least if you were trying to watch it on TV) stage to Vallter 2000 (why do they give ski resorts names like this?). Froome slipped further down the GC to 7th and by the time the race had ended  with a final rain swept stage in Barcelona was off the GC table altogether.

Contador looked like his mission was to strike a psychological blow to Froome. He let Rodriguez go once he had overhauled Froome on stage 3 and didn’t really try that hard to snatch the GC despite only having a few seconds gap between him and the leader for the remainder of the race. Does this tell us much about the likely fortunes of the contenders for the grand tours? Possibly not, although Sky have tended to want to exert a vice like grip on the races they enter their Tour de France team leaders in over the last few years. Despite this mishap, it should be remembered that Froome looked the class of the field in Oman and lost his key lieutenant Richie Porte early on to illness here. If Froome is vulnerable, if Contador is back on form, if Van Garderen is clear team leader at the Tour then 2014 won’t go entirely Sky’s way. At this point, however, Froome probably remains the man to beat.

Weight of expectation also seems to be taking its toll on Quintana who hasn’t looked good in his last two outings. He won the Pais Vasco last year and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the remainder of his preparation races for the Giro. Porte is Sky’s nominated team leader in Italy and he’s lacking in form and fitness. With the favourites running out of time to get in shape it could play into the hands of someone like Rigoberto Uran or Michele Scarponi for the honours this time around in the fight for pink.

Sky were absent from the Criterium International this year with Froome electing to ride in Catalunya instead. The race had a resultant French feel and French winner in the unluckiest rider from last years Tour Jean-Christophe Peraud. Peraud along with Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil in Catalunya look in good form this year and this bodes well for an improvement in French fortunes at their grand tour in July.

 

Swift Returns – VCSE’s Racing Digest #25

Milan San Remo 2014

In exchange for a perfect ribbon of smooth tarmac it’s probable that residents living alongside the Poggio, the final climb of the Milan San Remo route, can leave with the inconvenience of the race one day in early spring each year. The road is deserving of it’s pristine status as it by the time reaches it’s summit with 6 kilometres to go the race is either won or about to be.

Winner MSR 2014 - Alexander Kristoff
Winner MSR 2014 – Alexander Kristoff

This is, depending on your point of view, the beauty or the problem with Milan San Remo. The longest classic at almost 300km in length and with a largely benign profile it’s the ‘monument’ that is seen as offering the best chance of a sprint finish. The Poggio and it’s predecessor climb on the route, the Cipressa have been included over the years to try and keep interest in a race that can see the winning rider take 7 hours to complete the distance. The idea is that the climbs will force a selection or provide a breakaway with the kind of gap they would need to stay away to the line. It’s true that each ascent has thinned out the peloton over the last couple of years, but even as the race has entered the final kilometre it’s been anyone’s race.

Last year through up a surprise winner in MTN Quebeka’s Gerald Ciolek. The race had been part neutralised after heavy snow had fallen on the route and the remainder of the race was run in the kind of conditions you might expect in Belgium, rather than hugging the Mediterranean. Ciolek was unfancied ahead of the race in MTN Quebeka’s first season racing in Europe. This might have been the deciding factor that allowed him to burst to the head of the race at the crucial point, producing a sprint that beat a high profile podium comprising Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.

Milan San Remo receives live television coverage as the first of the five ‘monument’ one-day classics. It’s hard to imagine a broadcaster taking any more than the final couple of hours though as the first 200km are pretty dull viewing. Not quite as inclement as last year, the early part of this years race provided interest in deciding who has the worst helmet design in the peloton if nothing else. Trying to predict a winner from the riders showing themselves, even with 60km to go, is speculation at best.

The fancied riders this year were the pure sprinters like Cavendish, Degenkolb and Greipel. Sagan, of course, was in the mix too, but a later change to the route had much of the pre-race discussion centred on the likelihood of a bunch sprint finish. The first firm potential race winning attack came from Vincenzo Nibali who attacked ahead of the Poggio and overhauled the remains of the break ahead of the final climb. Can you imagine a GC style rider from Sky putting in attack like that? The Nibabli cameo lasted 15km and by the time the Poggio was reached the Sicilian was out the back suffering from a lack of legs or lack of support for the final push.

The group that was left was larger than last year and included Ciolek, hinting that he might not be a one hit wonder as far as the race was concerned. Sagan and Cancellara were in the mix too but so were the some of the sprinters, Cavendish included. There was much post race discussion on social media about eventual winner Alexander Kristoff who had odds that would have reflected Ciolek last year at 100-1. What sparked the discussion was that Kristoff had been tipped figuratively if not literally by some commentators as someone who “..loves long races”.

Led out for much of the finale by Luca Paolini, in truth Kristoff didn’t look to be in much difficulty of losing in the sprint to the line. The race was for the podium places, although judging from Cancellara’s reaction on the line he must have thought he was closing. The top 10 had some interest lines though. Ben Swift’s third place finish is the Sky riders biggest result for some time. Like a number of his teammates, VCSE hasn’t really been convinced of Swift’s chances against the world’s best sprinters, but yesterday’s result will probably be heralded as something of a breakthrough. It was the first time Swift has run MSR and it’s a race he has suggested he would do well in. Whether that’s based on more than just a feeling he has isn’t clear, but Swift was on the front of the peloton riding in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen late in the race and it was his supposed team leader that faded and not Swift. Following Ian Stannard’s win at OHN this podium will add to the theory that Sky are beginning to show more form in the classics, but at this stage the VCSE view remains that they’re just having a better year. Stannard was praised for his 6th place in last years MSR, so Swift can expect to get some favourable press and more importantly for the rider more chances to ride this year.

Sagan scraped into the top 10 and didn’t look like the rider described in pre-race discussions. Is he feeling the pressure to deliver this year? Cancellara picked up another podium and possibly one that was looking less likely. With Tom Boonen absent from MSR for personal reasons it’s not possible to draw to many conclusions about the match up to follow at E3 this Friday and looking further ahead to the Ronde and Paris Roubaix. Whether Boonen is able to put personal tragedy aside (will he want to?) may determine the direction of the remaining spring races.

Quick look ahead to the Tour of Catalunya

Dan Martin will defend his title but all eyes will be on Chris Froome in his first race back since missing Tirreno Adriatico with a back injury. The line up is pretty starry actually with Joaquim Rodriuez, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Chris Horner all riding. There will be lots of interestin sub plots including the Columbian match up between Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur.

Obviously, the race is a warm up for all involved, but with Betancur and Contador coming off strong wins in Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico respectively the prospects for some punches to be traded on the mountain stages on Wednesday and Thursday look good.

Froome will be supported by Sky’s normal roster of super domestiques with David Lopez and Mikel Nieve already lookin strong this year. Froome will also have Richie Porte, his closest ally from last years success at the Tour. Might Sky throw us all a curve ball this year and back Porte for GC? Porte hasn’t looked that strong yet this year and the Giro is nearer on the horizon. However, Froome will want to show that his injury is just a bump on the road if he’s to maintain the psychological advantage he enjoyed over his rivals last year.

Whatever happens, it’s looking like a good race to watch. It’s just a shame that Martin will probably be outgunned in his title defence. It’s hard to see him being allowed to escape and win the queen stage like he did last year and from there the overall.

No Sky.. No comment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #24

Paris Nice wrap up

If you’re one of the occasional readers of this blog you might be forgiven for thinking VCSE is a bit of a Team Sky fanboy. Certainly the team behind the Death Star crop up pretty often in these pages but that’s as much to do with the teams poor showing in one day races rather than the way they impose (or attempt to) themselves on stage races. Since the teams ‘difficult’ birth in 2010 where results didn’t match the hype and expectations Sky have proved to be a flagship example of the thoroughness that has made British Cycling and British cycling so successful. Winners of the last two Tour de France the team have also treated some of ASO’s other headline races as a Sky benefit in the last three years. Sky have delivered the last three winners of Paris Nice, previously seen as a warm up for the classics, but from Sky’s point of view an opportunity to drill their high tempo superdomestiques for the grand tours.

Big win for Colombia  & French cycling - Carlos Betancur
Big win for Colombia & French cycling – Carlos Betancur

The last week has seen a reversal of fortune for Sky. Not yet of terminal proportions, but a reminder of the unpredictable nature of road racing and the teams inability to go to a ‘plan B’ when their strategy unravels. Richie Porte, last years Paris Nice winner, was moved into Sky’s Tirreno Adriatico line up at short notice after Chris Froome was injured. This went down like a lead balloon with the ASO and things weren’t helped by Sky’s tacit disapproval of the parcours for this years edition that did away with the final day’s TT up the Col d’Eze and featured no summit finishes. ASO shouldn’t be criticised for changing the format; most people who have seen the race this week have said they have found it more exciting. The normally monosyllabic Sean Kelly, a seven time winner of the race and known as ‘Monsieur Paris Nice’ was probably at his most animated during commentary alongside Rob Hatch. We were treated to a weeks racing where the final outcome for GC could have been decided in the last few kilometres of the race. So, ultimately the race was won by a climber, but this was a racer’s race with the contenders at the sharp end at the death each day.

Sky elevated Geraint Thomas to team leader in Porte’s absence and the Welshman did take the overall at one point during the race, only to fall out of contention after a nasty crash on the penultimate stage. By then AG2R’s Carlos Betancur had taken the yellow jersey following back to back stage wins during the week. Betancur was well looked after by a team that aren’t that familiar with trying to control a race, but it was good to see a race being controlled using old school methods like covering attacks, rather than relentless drilling on the front that seems to have become the norm with Sky. A bit of an aside here; Movistar have taken to riding on the front this year too and AG2R should be grateful for that as the Spanish team kept the breakaway riders very honest today for the final stage.

Just as it’s too early to write Sky off, it’s far too soon to talk about the curse of the rainbow jersey. World champion Rui Costa had a couple of close finishes at Paris Nice, but the disappointment of missing out on those wins was probably less painful than the crash he got caught up in on today’s final stage. He looks like a great signing for Lampre and bike sponsor Merida are making the most of him too in their new TV advert.

Assuming Thomas is still being viewed as a classics specialist then his performance in Paris Nice, at least until his crash, was pretty decent. He still doesn’t look like someone who’s about to win a big one day race, let alone a stage race but taking the lead in Paris Nice is another step forward from holding the lead for a few days in the 2013 Tour Down Under.

Betancur ends the week as the leading rider on the world tour. The ‘big’ names; Froome, Nibali etc. are nowhere to be seen at the moment, but Froome rides in the Volta a Catalunya in a weeks time and it’s hard to imagine that the table will look like this by the end of July. Despite this, Betancur’s result is a big one for him and Colombian cycling, perhaps elevating him in front of Rigoberto Uran if not Nairo Quintana for now.

It’s also a massive result for French cycling; today’s win for AG2R was the first for a French team in Paris Nice since the 1980’s. If it’s also a sign that cycling is becoming ‘cleaner’ if a French team can win Paris Nice it’s no bad thing, but for now the real winners are ASO for showing how interest can be maintained in a race if you dispense with endless summit finishes.

Tirreno Adriatico – the story so far

If the parcours for Tirreno Adriatico suited Richie Porte more than that on offer at Paris Nice we will never know as he pulled out of the event after Saturday’s stage. Porte never really looked like he was in contention this week and if he really was suffering from a virus it might explain his feeble digs on the climbs this week.

The early part of the race belonged to Omega Pharma. With Tony Martin and Mark Cavendish in the line up, the world TTT champions took the leaders jersey after stage one with Cavendish eventually surrendering it to teammate Michael Kwiatowski. The Pole is in great form after a win at Strade Bianche and considering the mix in the OPQS squad between GC specialists like Kwiatowski and Uran and Cavendish’s lead out train the team did well to keep the lead for so long. Uran seems out of sorts at the moment, perhaps unsettled by the more established Kwiatowski’s performances so far this year.

Kwiatowski finally faltered on Sunday’s stage losing the lead to Tinkoff Saxo’s Alberto Contador who has looked stronger as the week has gone on. Contador looked like he was back to his best, teeing up his stage win and stealing the lead from Kwiatowski with an economical ride in Saturday’s stage. Ably supported by Roman Kreuziger, who also looked super strong yesterday the two teammates saw off rivals and got within a minute of Kwiatowski ahead of today’s (Sunday) stage. It’s hard to see Contador giving up the GC now with a flat stage tomorrow ahead of the final TT.

An in form Contador is good news for those of us that don’t want the grand tours to be just about when Chris Froome will take the lead this year. Let’s just say this once more; it is far too soon to write Sky off, but for those that want some drama at the head of a stage race a resurgent Alberto Contador and the continued emergence of good Colombian riders is a very good thing indeed.

Revolution series round 5 – London Velodrome

VCSE was lucky enough to attend one of the sessions at the Revolution series final round this weekend. This was the first competition to be held in the Velodrome since the Olympics and there’s was a pretty much a full house, even at the afternoon session we joined.

Revolution
Revolution

First, a bit of a confession. Track cycling doesn’t really do it for your correspondent. That’s not to say all of it, but some of the events and not necessarily the obvious ones, are a bit of a yawn. For example, where’s the excitement in watching a three lap track stand contest? That said, even up in the gods it was as interesting to watch the riders prepare and then wind down between events. Seeing Laura Trott calmly walk over and pick up a flip top bin before vomiting into it after her pursuit round is a visceral insight into what it takes to win. A semi-serious debate between track commentator Hugh Porter and the crowd (via Twitter) about why velodrome tracks always turn left mentioned the connection with the Roman chariot races. There is something gladiatorial about the track and some riders know how to involve the crowd and then exploit that to their advantage. World champion Francois Pervis was able to get the kind of reaction that belied the fact that here was a Frenchman beating a British Olympic champion in his own backyard.

Pervis was putting the hurt on Trott’s other half, Jason Kenny. You imagine that Trott is properly supportive of her boyfriend no matter how he performs, but it maybe another psychological hurdle to overcome if you’re partner is winning for fun and you’re struggling to make the final. Trott it seems is not fazed by anything, even being physically sick in front of thousands of fans and the going to sign autographs for an hour. Before the incident with the bin, Trott was able to remove her aero helmet and do a victory lap that gave no indication of what was to come.

The Olympic legacy seems alive and well with the turnout for the Revolution. The biggest cheers were always going to go for the riders that the crowd had heard of; there was surprise and a little dismay when Dani King was beaten by Katie Archibald in the pursuit. Hugh Porter whipped things up as much as a man in his seventies could do when the crowd went a little flat and eventually the men’s points race had the crowd hooked when each sprint came around.

Trott ended the event with a fantastic score of six points in the omnium, the lowest possible score being six points for six victories. There’s obviously strength in depth in British track cycling but Trott looks like someone who can become truly dominant. We’re left with a hankering to stand in the centre of the track at the Ghent six day; as exciting as the racing was from the stands with a diet coke, watching amongst the crowd with a beer sounds like the way to go!

Revolution @ London Velodrome
Revolution @ London Velodrome

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

Darkness into light – VCSE’s Racing Digest #14

Tour de France 2013 wrap up

It was always unlikely that Chris Froome would make any enforced errors on the penultimate stage of this years Tour. Consciously or otherwise he attempted to soothe those sections of the media and those fans at the roadside who were feeling his performances so far had an extraterrestrial air of superiority. For their final day in the Alps the peloton faced a relatively short 120 kilometre stage that looped out and back to Annecy, finishing on the climb of Semnoz above the town with its average gradient of nearly 9% over 11km.

Chris Froome
Mr Clean – Chris Froome (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It became clear fairly quickly that Froome wasn’t going to be challenged by Alberto Contador, the Saxo team tactics appeared that they were content for Sky to ride tempo, perhaps hoping to secure Contador’s podium by this route.  When it came to the crunch, or in this case the final climb of the day the Saxo strategy unravelled as Contador was unable to keep pace with Froome, Nairo Qunitana and late arrival to the GC party Joaquim Rodriguez.

If Froome had star billing before, during and inevitably after this years Tour, then Nairo Quintana would have appeared just below the races leading actor. As fortunes ebbed and flowed for the riders from Movistar, Quintana found himself elevated to leadership status after Alejandro Valverde’s bid for the GC was derailed between Tours and Saint Amand Montrond in week two. Always the rider most likely to get a reaction from Froome on the climbs, if not actually put him under sustained pressure, Quintana took his opportunity to Annecy to further enhance his reputation. By the end of the stage not only was Quintana wearing the young riders jersey, he had annexed the King of the Mountains and moved up to second place overall.

If you’re going to show a bit of mortality then the last climb of the last stage is possibly the best place to do it  if you’re Chris Froome. He had employed his cartoonish high cadence counter attack already but with Contador losing touch when Quintana and Rodriguez dug again, Froome almost appeared to shrug his shoulders, the metaphor “OK, you can have this one”. If this was a gift to some, it was an unwitting kick in the balls for Contador who found himself falling off the podium altogether. The sense was that Rodriguez’s ambition was a podium place after his relative anonymity in the first two weeks. There was a token amount of good natured sparring between him and Quintana before the Columbian distanced him and we were treated to an actual show of emotion as Quintana crossed the line.

The GC was sorted. Froome winning was no surprise to anyone really. The only debate, the methods employed or not employed by rider and team. With the benefit of two weeks hindsight the consensus now seems that the amount of column inches dedicated to the margin and method of Froome’s victory was inevitable given the fact that this was the first Tour since Lance confessed. Froome has coped with the attention pretty well it seems. It certainly didn’t affect his performance. Whatever your view about Chris Froome riding clean (or not) the facts are that his win in this years Tour was a much harder fought victory than Bradley Wiggins in 2012. The level of GC competition, say Nibabli in 2012 verses Contador in 2013 is less significant than the fact that Sky were simply unable to dominate the pace as the had before. The race was won by Froome not on the second TT or Mont Ventoux, but when he rode alone and unsupported through the Pyrenees on stage 9.

Quintana is already being touted as a future grand tour winner. He will develop tactically over the next few years but in a regular time trial stage he will lose heaps of time to a rider like Froome. His testing needs to improve dramatically for him to rival the Sky rider, at least in the short term. Where Quintana can be most effective is probably somewhere like the Vuelta where the climbs are steeper and there is less emphasis on riding purely against the clock. Alberto Contador’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of stage 20 was to announce that he wouldn’t defend his Vuelta title from last year. Coming up against Vincenzo Nibali refreshed from the Giro and probably the only rider who can rival Froome at present doesn’t appear to be particularly enticing but by the following day Saxo Bank were already rowing backwards from the statements of the day before. No doubt we will find out more next month. Rodriguez now has a podium in each of the grand tours in the last two years, which seems like achievement enough for him.

Garmin’s Andrew Talansky rode well in the final week to become the young rider surrogate for Quintana and sneak into the top 10 on GC. Garmin managed to get someone into the mix in each week with Dan Martin’s win in the Pyrenees the obvious highlight. In what is rumoured be his last Tour David Millar was a second out of the race lead in week one and his forlorn attempt to win stage 21 with a breakaway on the Champs Elysee was incredible and desperate in equal measure.

Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang’s 7th place was a bit of a poke in the eye for his critics that doubted he would figure in the race, all the more since he lost four teammates over three weeks. Alejandro Valverde clawed back time in the Alps for a top 10 place that VCSE suspects he will be happy with, if not achieved as he expected to. With new sponsor joining them for the Tour Blanco became Belkin and until the race entered the last week had two riders in contention. Bauke Mollema wasn’t unheralded as team leader as he brought some good form into the race and the despite slipping from 2nd at one point, 6th is a decent outcome for the Dutch team. The Richie Porte to Alberto Contador’s Chris Froome was Roman Kreuziger. Saxo had assembled a strong team for the Tour and the Czech rider cemented his Amstel Gold win with 5th place.

And so to Paris..

While the GC reckoning had taken place the previous day the peloton still had to cross the line in Paris to finish the race. The night stage on the Champs Elysee was held in twilight rather than full darkness but it provided a hint that maybe there was a new era emerging. Mark Cavendish was denied a fifth win in what Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby referred to as “The unofficial sprinters world championship” by Marcel Kittel. From the vantage point of the VCSE sofa it looked as if the Omega Pharma sprint train had decoupled somewhere between the Rue de Rivoli and the finish straight. We suspected that Cavendish would be overheard tearing his team and his bike a new one afterwards. Instead, he seemed almost philosophical about the defeat where he was even denied the runners up spot by Andre Greipel. His lead out had “… done exactly what I asked” and there was a suggestion of not having enough power. Did the late puncture have an effect? The cobblestone that kicked his rear wheel skywards metres from the line probably denied him second place. Kittel was just the much stronger rider on the day. There’s talk of the Tour visiting Germany as well as Yorkshire next year. If it does then the resurgence of German cycling embodied by riders like Kittel and Greipel will have played a huge part.

The green points jersey competition was already long decided by this time. Peter Sagan was disappointed with a solitary stage win, but it was his consistency that won the prize this year. If anything his performance mirrored that of his classics season where he was always there or thereabouts and his only win came in the semi classic Ghent Wevelghem. The suggestion that the points system now favours riders like Sagan over pure sprinters like Cavendish and should be changed is wrong. Sagan is a winner in the style of a Thor Hushovd or a Sean Kelly. Surely it makes sense to continue to favour the best all-rounder and leave the sprinters their moment in the sun (or twilight) in Paris.

The light show projected on the Arc de Triomphe was pretty spectacular stuff, although the twinkling lights of the Eiffell Tower was just something they always do apparently. Perhaps the podium show lacked some of the shock and awe we had expected for the 100th Tour, but in comparison to the normal prize giving on the flatbed of an articulated lorry presided over by Bernard Hinault it had something. Chris Froome was as we had come to recognise over the previous weeks, blinking in the spotlights and perhaps even still slightly disbelieving in what he had done. He wants us to believe though, in him and in the jersey. VCSE suspects that some of our heroes will break our hearts in the future, but Chris Froome is unlikely to be among them.

In other news.. racing continues

A pleasing report from Belgium where Tom Boonen, looking rather anonymous now that he has lost his national title claimed a stage win in the Tour de Wallonie. Some much needed good news for BMC too after Greg Van Avermaet snatched the GC along with a couple of stage wins. The team had a frankly awful Tour with Cadel Evans fading and Tejay Van Garderen summing up his race by losing on Alpe d’Huez.

We can look forward to Spain’s one day classic the.. er Clasica San Sebastian today and the start of the Tour of Poland. The notable entrant in the stage race, which actually begins in Italy is Bradley Wiggins. Described by Dave Brailsford this week as “motivated” it will be interesting to see if we see more of the Bradley Wiggins of 2013 so far or flashes of the Wiggo of 2012. A week or so should tell us what we need to know..

Rather like Alejandro Valverde we got a good percentage of our Tour predictions right. No praise for picking Froome as a winner, but Contador and Rodriguez in the top 5 and Quintana as KOM we will take. Let’s just keep Cavendish in green and Cadel in the top 5 between ourselves… 

Froome set to win his first Tour – VCSE’s Racing Digest #13

As the late, great Kenneth Wolstenhome said “They think it’s all over..” and with one stage left to shuffle the GC classification it’s hard to see Team Sky’s Chris Froome losing his lead and the Maillot Jaune. VCSE’s prediction for the 2013 Tour de France looks safe, but as we went for most peoples favourite it was a pretty safe bet. Froome has ridden a dominant race. He has won two stages in the final week including Sunday’s summit finish at Mont Ventoux and the rather more closely fought second Time Trial stage in the Alps on Wednesday.

Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome (Tassin la de...
Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome & Team Sky (Photo credit: Stwayne Keubrick)

After winning the first stage in the Pyrenees on a very similar profile the likelihood was that Froome could achieve the same outcome on Ventoux as he had done at Ax 3 Domaines. The resemblance between the stage profile was mirrored by the result as Movistars Nairo Quintana attacked only to be reeled in and eventually defeated by the Sky mans pace. And rather like his first win this year it was Froome’s pace that gathered the most headlines afterwards.

Whether it’s the first post Lance ‘confession’ Tour or a dig at the rider / team or a combination of all three Team Sky in general and Chris Froome in particular have suffered a huge amount of scrutiny during this race. It had reached enough of a crescendo on the second rest day that Sky decided to counter punch with the release of Froome’s power data to L’Equipe and his biological information to WADA. It’s possibly a little unfair on the rider that he has had to deal with the volume and intensity of “Is he doping?” questions that come his way, directly or indirectly via social media. In previous generations (read pre Lance) the way Froome has gone about his attempt to win this Tour would have been celebrated. Three stage wins, including two summit finishes and the way he rode unsupported for an entire day in the Pyrenees is the stuff of legend. Yet he has been dogged by the doping question throughout the race in a way that only in the last couple of days (and perhaps not until the race finishes) has the tone of the reporting calmed down. In contrast to Sky’s erstwhile team leader Wiggins, Froome seems not to want to cause offence and perhaps an expletive laden rebuttal a la Wiggo might have silenced some of the doubters. The media have been quick to jump on any unfortunate quote or quip from the race leader to try and illustrate a tenuous guilt by association to the Tour’s fallen idols, but at least the sideshow appears to be abating now that Sky have wrested back control of the agenda with their information release.

It has felt a bit like the only thing that could derail the Sky train this year was themselves. In 2012 Sky established complete control over the peloton and while breakaways happened the rivals that mattered were kept firmly in the place by metronomic, power metered pace. This suited a team leader like Bradley Wiggins who essentially has one gear, but in 2013 Sky have Froome who is able to deliver multiple changes of pace even if he could be an illustration to define the phrase ‘win ugly’ with his all arms and legs riding style. And how they have needed Froome this year as the Sky train has been largely non existent. Other than his summit wins, the supporting cast (with the notable exception of Richie Porte) have been bit part players often falling away when Sky’s rivals have had domestiques in hand. Pete Kennaugh had another good ride on the Ventoux stage, but the other riders have suffered in comparison to say Movistar and Saxo Bank’s supporting cast. Of course, Sky lost Vasil Kireyenka early in the race, but they lost a similar engine last year without the same effect. Froome will n0 doubt show a great deal of humility and thank his team if he wins, but for VCSE at least the seeds for the victory were laid when he was alone in the Pyrenees on stage 9.

When Chris Froome is casting around for people to thank he should also spare a thought or two for the respective managers and strategists at Movistar and Saxo Bank. As brave as Froome was across the cols of the Pyrenees his opponents were indecisive or unwilling to deliver a fatal blow allowing the Sky rider to retain the lead and be in a position to consolidate it during the first time trial. Other than an opportunistic break on the wind effected stage 13 by Saxo Bank the opportunities to put some hurt onto Froome and Sky have largely been missed. For Saxo Bank Alberto Contador has been ably supported by Roman Kreuziger to the extent that the Amstel Gold winner has a solid top 10 result to look forward to. Contador had said he had his “..strongest ever team” going into this Tour but even if his teams tactics have been misplayed even Alberto admits that he cannot match Froome one on one. Whether climbing the Ventoux or on the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez Contador just hasn’t had the legs to see off the Maillot Jaune.

It was Movistar who had put Sky under pressure on stage 9 and Nairo Quintana who looked like their rider most likely to profit from a Sky slip, but the Spanish team suffered from not knowing which horse to back. Alejandro Valverde’s untimely wheel change on stage 13 settled that but while Quintana was able to move up the GC and take over the young rider classification it was hard to see him challenging to overhaul the top two. Where Movistar have profited this week is from stage wins from breaks and it’s all thanks to just one rider. Rui Costa book ended the second TT and the Alpe d’Huez stages with two fine solo victories. VCSE predicts a swansong for Valverde in this years Vuelta, but expect to see Costa and Quintana as the GC hopes for Movistar next year.

With neither Movistar or Saxo able to put Sky under much pressure in the Alps this week the excitement has needed to come from elsewhere and Thursday’s queen stage to Alp d’Huez had all of this and more. Encroaching fans on climbs are probably considerably more frustrating to negotiate for a rider than they are borderline tedious to the armchair viewer. The fans lining the hairpins on the Alp take things to a whole different level however. For the leading group any hope of attacking on the climb was ruled out in favour of just surviving the no doubt well-intentioned gauntlet of fans. The second and final ascent fell into two distinct halves; those riders that still had something to race for and those who would be just happy to finish and ‘would have that beer thank you’  as they passed Dutch corner. In the 100th Tour no French rider had one a stage before the Alp and for a large portion of the race that looked as if it would remain. BMC’s Tejay van Garderen had imploded in the Pyrenees and this was going to be his salvation. A mechanical on the descent of the Col de Sarenne held him up for a while but he was the first rider onto the Alp for the final ascent. His lead began to plummet as he climbed and the remnants of the peloton raced along the valley floor, but of closer and more urgent concern was the pace of AG2R’s Christophe Riblon. Riblon had finished second to Costa earlier in the week and must have felt the weight of that near miss along with the need to win something for the team after his teammate and highest placed French GC rider Jean-Christophe Peraud had abandoned after a double crash and fracture on the previous days TT. As both riders emerged from the crowds into the barriered section of the course it was clear that the Frenchman was catching Van Garderen. You had to feel for the American and as Riblon closed in thoughts of the two riding together Hinault and Lemond style to the line flickered. But no, Riblon showed no mercy, riding past without a moments hesitation and any suggestion of ruthlessness towards Van Garderen was quickly forgotten as the prospect of a French stage win on this stage in this race dawned over the fans, the commentators and the viewers at home. Alongside Chris Froome’s solo battle on stage 9 in the Pyrenees and with two stages still to go a contender for the stage of the Tour.

Today’s stage promised much but didn’t really deliver. The second win for Costa was well taken, but Sky seemed to be given a fairly easy day on a potential banana skin parcours. Of course there is one more GC stage to come, a short and sharp 120 kilometres to Mont Semnoz outside Annecy. Will there be a last roll of the dice? Taking more than 4 minutes out of Froome at this point would probably involve an attack of epic proportions from Saxo and or Movistar from the flag. VCSE’s view is that the opportunity has passed and if anything changes tomorrow it will be the podium places. Katusha’s Jaoquim Rodriguez has climbed up the GC this week and he could be the rider to shake up the places in search of a podium spot. Otherwise it’s down to the teams and riders that need to make an impression with time running out for them; an Andy Schleck or Jakob Fuglsang perhaps?

And so we will leave the mountains and head for the nocturne in Paris. Can Mark Cavendish get five in a row on the Champs Elysee. It will no doubt come down to which sprinter has left enough in his legs following a week in the Alps, but the VCSE Top 3 prediction would be from these; Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel.

 

Sky find their limits – VCSE’s Racing Digest #12

The Pyrenean stages 

In the last Racing Digest we talked about the 2013 Tour de France starting for real as the peloton entered the Pyrenees last weekend. After its offshore sojourn on Corsica and the practical annexation of the Maillot Jaune by Orica Green Edge in week one, the general classification dice were due to get their first roll.

Nairo Quintana
Nairo Quintana (Photo credit: nuestrociclismo.com)

From the outset Sky’s Chris Froome has been VCSE’s and most people’s favourite. Froome demonstrated his superiority on the Tour climbs in 2012 and when riding a similar profile this year from Oman to the Alpes he has been in dominant form. Froome weakness and indeed that of 2012 Tour winner and erstwhile Sky team leader Bradley Wiggins is on the steeper ramps that don’t feature in the ASO’s idea of what a parcours should look like. Although key rivals like Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez missed the Tour last year, their form so far this year positioned Froome as the man whose race this was to lose. The question was; who would show their hand first in the mountains?

Stage 8 with a summit finish also featured this years highest col at Pailheres, just over 2000 metres at its crest. There’s a special award named for Tour founder Henri Desgrange for the rider who reaches the years highest climb first and it was Nairo Quintana who managed this convincingly. VCSE’s tip for the King of the Mountains classification made the climb look easy, although as Paul Sherwen pointed out (several times!) a climb over a pass at 2000 metres should hold no fears for a rider who was born at 3000 metres. Whatever advantages his birthplace gave Quintana on the way up, they didn’t extend to his ability to descend. Whether there was a rider in the field that could have skipped up the Col de Pailheres as lightly as Quintana we’ll never know, but the drop into the valley called for the sadly absent Vincenzo Nibali. Quintana is no Nibali and as he made a mess of his lines into the valley before the final ascent to Ax 3 Domaines the leaders began to peg him back.

Froome was enjoying the typical assiduous Sky close support. Peter Kennaugh, a Tour debutant but long since identified as a GC ‘prospect’ buried himself to get Froome and Richie Porte to the final climb in the perfect place. For Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen this was almost too much after the Quintana show, both commentators seemingly about to suggest that Kennaugh had “..come from nowhere”. Froome isn’t the surprise package anymore and his demonstration on the climb to Ax 3 Domaines showed his superiority. Quintana, now within touching distance of the chasing group was dispatched by a burst of speed from Froome that he continued and suddenly it was him alone ready to ride into yellow. There were shades of the Criterium International from earlier in the year as Froome rode away and Porte, realising that no one was getting up from the canvas, kicked on himself to deliver a Sky 1-2 and the race lead for Froome. Other than Quintana’s cameo, it was an almost depressingly dominant performance from Sky with Froome and Porte going first and second on GC and the emergence (for Liggett and Sherwen at least) of Kennaugh. The following morning’s L’Equipe headline ‘A First Round Knockout’ summed up the consensus view that the Tour was as good as over. The second and final day in the Pyrenees made all of the conclusions jumped to seem extremely foolish and certainly premature.

A case is sometimes made for televising the early part of a stage ‘live’. Dependent on your choice of feed, the opportunity to see the chess match that is played out as the teams agree just who will be allowed to form a break is something that might never be seen. The armchair fan is reliant on the presenter and / or commentator to fill in the gaps and describe just how you come to be watching the race that has developed. Thanks to the joys of social media it was pretty clear on Sunday that scripts written less than 24 hours ago were being torn up across the press, TV and peloton. Whether by deals made in smoke filled rooms or just pure synchronicity between the teams the plan for the day seemed to be let’s all attack Sky. And up to a point it worked. Viewers watching the ITV feed joined the action to find Chris Froome alone. The previous days revelation Peter Kennaugh had taken a tumble off the road and was struggling to get back to the lead group, but the regular ‘engines’ of the Sky train Suitsou, Kiryenka and Porte had apparently blown in the face of a mass team effort from Movistar. With three first category climbs left and his GC rivals circling you waited for Froome to be delivered a final fatal blow, but none came. As commentary shifted between discussing what had happened and what might / should happen next Froome dug deep and hung on. He showed the biggest balls of all when responding to digs from Quintana on the final climb over La Hourquette d’Ancizan. VCSE had tipped Garmin’s Dan Martin as someone who could pull off a win over the weekend and already well down on GC, his attack with Astana’s Jakob Fulsang was allowed to go late on the stage. Froome maintained the 1.25 advantage he had enjoyed over Alejandro Valverde going into the stage, the difference being that he was now in second place, Porte had fallen out of contention completely. Worse still for Sky was the news that Kiryenka had missed the time cut depriving Froome of one of his most powerful domestiques. For the Tour, Sunday was the best result possible. Although the favourite was still in yellow, it looked like there was still a race on. Froome deserved as much credit for his solo effort as his win the previous day. For his competitors questions remained as to why no one had delivered the killer blow to Sky’s isolated team leader. Certainly for all of the effort they put in Movistar had not appeared to get much from the stage. If nothing else as the peloton looked forward to the first rest day, they had established something: Sky were human after all.

The Tour heads north and then south again (with a time trial in between!)

After the excitement of the Pyrenees Sky were perhaps glad of a week of stages where the yellow jersey wouldn’t be under much threat with an interlude for an individual time trial where Chris Froome would be very much the dominant rider. In week one sprint honours had been split relatively evenly with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan all taking wins. Sagan was proving dominant in the points classification having been there or thereabouts at the last even if he only had one victory to his name. Marcel Kittel who had upset the Cav in yellow storyline in stage one was first to strike again in week two taking the win on stage 10 to St Malo. There was no controversy for Kittel in victory, but the waters that ebb and flow around Mark Cavendish became stormy after he appeared to nudge Kittel’s Argos Shimano teammate Tom Veelers off during the sprint. The opinion that counts in these situations (the race officials) said “no foul”, but not before some heat of the moment interviews had taken place that resulted in Cavendish stealing a reporters tape recorder and Veelers saying Cavendish was at fault. Peace was restored pretty quickly and Cavendish presented a cooler head later on via social media that redeemed him at least as far as VCSE is concerned.

The stage 48 hours later told perhaps a bigger story when Cavendish seemingly poised for victory was denied at the line by Kittel for his second win in three days and the third win by a German rider in as many days. Whether Kittel’s win signified a change at the top of the sprinters tree remains to be seen although that could be answered to an extent next Sunday on the Champs Elysee. With Peter Sagan holding onto a strong, if not unassailable lead in the green jersey competition a win in Paris could already have been inked in as Cavendish’s priority for this year. Kittel shows no fear where Cavendish is concerned and his Argos team have been every bit as determined as Omega Pharma to get their rider into the right place at the right time. With the Alp’s fast approaching it’s going to be interesting to see who comes out the least damaged of the sprinters group a week tomorrow.

Sandwiched in between the sprints; the TT. Omega Pharma’s TT world champion Tony Martin had a long wait in the hot seat thanks to his lowly position on GC. As befits the Maillot Jaune Chris Froome was last to leave the starters hut. Part one of the test was to put time into his GC rivals. Mission accomplished as Valverde, Contador, Evans and others lost chunks of time reinforced by a ride from Froome that as late as the second time check suggested a second stage win. Denied by a change in wind direction, Froome could still feel happy with an additional two minutes lead over his closest rival Valverde.

Sky still weren’t having things their own way. With the focus naturally on the GC, on sprint stages Edvald Boasson Hagen had been given the licence to go for the win and had delivered some decent results in week one. On stage 12 into Tours an accident in the final stages costed Sky another rider as Boasson Hagen crashed heavily and broke his scapula. Despite the Norwegians exit the following days stage looked easy enough, with little climbing and a likely sprint finish. What no one anticipated was the cross wind that first detached a group of riders including Marcel Kittel. Next to fall victim was Valverde, puncturing and forced to take a wheel from a teammate. At the other end of the race, Saxo  Bank marshalled by ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers saw Froome well back in the peloton and forced another split. Missing helpers Froome eventually had to admit defeat and lost over a minute at the end. Valverde’s challenge was over, but now Contador was back in the hunt. Cavendish, who had been the last rider to make the break, took the stage win. Froome still had the lead, but his advantage had dropped to less than 2.30 from in form Bauke Mollema who had been installed as Belkin team leader just before the Tour started.

The stage could have been described as a breakaway win, but in its purest sense today’s stage to Lyon was a breakaway proper. On the anniversary of Tom Simpsons death, David Millar was part of the large group that got away. Millar didn’t have the legs in the end, but the heartbreak was felt most by Sojasun’s Julien Simon who came so close to delivering the first French win in this years Tour. Omega Pharma got their third win this week instead with Tour debutant Matteo Trentin.

And so week two closes and the final week of Tdf 2013 begins with a massive stage and summit finish at Mont Ventoux. In all likelihood the action before the ‘Giant’ will be between the French teams desperate to get someone strong into the break on Bastille Day. It could be a day for Pierre Rolland or even Thomas Voeckler who has been pretty anonymous so far. As there is no descent involved it might also be time for Thibaut Pinot to show himself. The VCSE view on the stage is that the profile will probably suit Froome as it has some similarities with the stage to Ax 3 Domaines. Even if he is alone for the climb, Froome has shown he has the legs to ride away on a single HC climb. Don’t anticipate to many changes to the GC tomorrow, but as for next week; when the race gets to the Alps Sky will have a real battle on their hands.

VCSE’s Tour de France 2013 Preview

2010 Tour De France
Tour De France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday the world’s greatest stage race begins its 100th edition in Corsica. The Tour de France visits Napoleon’s birthplace for the first time and in edition to the grand depart features two mores stages before returning to the mainland. The Pro Tour has already visited the island once this season in March for the Criterium International. While this years race starts without last years winner Bradley Wiggins there are some strong contenders returning in the shape of Alberto Contador, who was still serving a doping ban last July. VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour and will be bringing some of the sights and sounds of the Grand Boucle from a fans perspective on four stages.

The parcours 

Following the Corsican stages (1 through 3) stage 4 is a 25km Team Time Trial in Nice, the first since 2011. It’s a flat course that will favour the teams with strong testers. Stages 5 and 6 will offer chances for a breakaway and the sprinters respectively, although there’s still a possibility for a Sagan or similar to ride strongly over stage five’s final climbs to snatch the win. Stage 6 is a genuine sprint stage with the Mistral likely to play a cameo role in further splitting the peloton once the initial bumps have been crossed.

Stage 7 will stretch the GC and climbers legs with four categorised climbs into the world heritage city of Albi before the race enters the Pyrenees. Stage 8 offers the first Hors Category climb of this years race, coming towards the end of the stage over the Col de Palihere’s before finishing with a Cat 1 ascent to Aix 3 Domaines. The following day the peloton will tackle four 1st and one 2nd category climbs including the Col de Peyresourde, finishing in Bagneres de Bigorre. With the first rest day and a long transfer to follow the stage could see whoever is in yellow trying to consolidate their lead or a rival team look to snatch the jersey away for their GC hope.

The peloton takes its rest day in Brittany and will complete stage 10 in the port of St Malo on a stage that suggests a sprint finish. In fact, the stage could see the points competition sewn up as the best opportunities for the sprinters will be behind them at this point. Stage 11 is the first of the races two Time Trials finishing at the spectacular Mont Saint Michel and one for the specialist testers within the peloton like Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin. If there is any life left in the Green Jersey points contest stage 12 guarantees a sprint finish following a route that passes many of the Loire valley’s most famous chateau’s. Stage 13 is the last of the truly flat stages before the final gallop down the Champs Elysees. As the race moves back into the hills and mountains after this it’s possible that some of the sprinters may abandon after this stage finishes.

Now the race continues its south western trajectory with a rolling stage (14) to Lyon followed by the test of a summit finish on the ‘Giant of Provence’ Mont Ventoux on Sunday’s stage 15. This stage falls on Bastille Day and promises huge crowds on the climb as well as the likely shoot out between the GC rivals.

The final rest day follows before the climbs continue into the foothills of the Alps. Stage 16 finishes in Gap with three 2nd cat climbs on the way and a downhill finish that could see a break away managing to stay away for victory. The final TT follows; 32km including two cat 2 climbs around a lake between the towns of Embrun and Chorges. Will riders opt to stay with the normal bikes equipped with tri bars or go for the full TT machine?

Probably the stage of this years race is Thursday’s stage 18 from Gap to Alpe d’Heuz. The route climbs the iconic mountain not once but twice. It’s a shorter stage and two climbs of the famous 21 hairpins aren’t as tricky as they sound (ordinarily the peloton could have climbed the Croix de Fer, Glandon or Galibier beforehand) but it should make for fantastic viewing. The Hors Category climbs continue on stage 19 with the Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeleine featuring in addition to the cat 1 Col de la Croix Fry. If the GC hasn’t been decided by that point there is Saturdays stage (20) that provides a cat 2, three 3rd category and the cat 1 Mont Revard before another summit finish at Annecy. Despite its location Annecy has little in the way of Tour history and the climb to Semnoz has none at all. Perhaps an odd choice for the last possible stage for a GC shake up.

Stage 21 from Versailles to Paris finishing on the Champs Elysees provides the finale to the Tour. The race has finished here since 1975 but this year the organisers have changed the route to allow the peloton to ride around the Arc de Triomphe rather than turning at this point and the stage moves to a nighttime floodlit finish.

VCSE’s “unmissable” stages

Stage 1 Porto Vecchio to Bastia – Cavendish in yellow?

Stage 9 Saint Girons to Bagneres de Bigorre – This years big Pyrenean climbs

Stage 15 Givors to Mont Ventoux – Summit finish on the Giant of Provence

Stage 18 Gap to Alpe d’Huez – Climbing the Alpe not once, but twice

Stage 20 Annecy to Annecy Semnoz – Last chance for a GC shake up

Stage 21 Versailles to Paris – Under the lights down the Champs Elysees

The contenders 

For the maillot jaune it’s been hard to see much further than Chris Froome and a second successive win for Team Sky. Like Bradley Wiggins in 2012 Froome has won pretty much everything he has entered including, crucially, emphatic victories against his main rivals. The exception? Tirreno Adriatico, where he was undone on the steepest climbs by eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali is missing the Tour having focused on the Giro which leaves Froome facing challenges from three riders who out pointed him at last years Vuelta for starters.

Alberto Contador, winner of 2009 Tour de Franc...
Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First and foremost is that races winner Alberto Contador. While his form this year to date hasn’t been spectacular Contador is talking a good game ahead of the Tour. Saxo Bank have chosen a strong team to support with ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers alongside top ten finisher Nico Roche and Amstel Gold winner Roman Kreuiziger.

Contador missed last years Tour as he was still serving his doping ban for Clenbuterol. Another rider missing from last years race and indeed the one before that is Jaoquim Rodriguez of Katusha. He chose to miss the Giro, after finishing second the previous year and should be in better form than his last appearance where he finished 7th.

The divisive figure of Alejandro Valverde rounds out the trio. Valverde has already suggested that he doesn’t have the firepower for the win, but Movistar have strength in depth with Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa and another stage race winner from 2013 Nairo Quintana in support. Neither rider is in the first rank of GC contenders but assuming Valverde is struggling Movistar have leadership options and could switch to either of the younger riders. After their stage wins in the Giro another possibility is that the team approach the Tour with a similar strategy.

Another team with potential dual leadership is BMC with Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen. Ahead of the Giro many commentators had written Evans off but a strong performance in Italy has seen some revisions of opinion about his form. Whether he has enough left in the tank after three weeks of snow and rain in the Dolomites remains to be seen. Waiting impatiently in the wings is Van Garderen. Still eligible for the young riders competition he looked fairly impressive taking the Tour of California. While he may end up taking the BMC leadership crown in July it’s hard to see him winning this year. It’s interesting that with Evans approaching the end of his career that BMC were rumoured to have approached Froome with a contract for 2014. Does the Swiss backed but US registered team have the confidence that Van Garderen can beat Froome or not? For the other teams it’s more likely that they will need to rely on the odd cameo performance via a breakaway win or victory in a specialism like the TT to snatch the headlines. There is a potential wild card in the peloton with Andy Schleck who has suffered a very public examination of his struggle to return to the form that saw him finish second to Contador in 2010 (elevated to 1st later). Schleck needs to ride for a contract as much as anything else as the team that was once built around him has been sold to bike supplier Trek for 2014.

Sky have selected a strong team to support Froome with Richie Porte likely to take the Froome role from last year to shepherd his team leader over the cols. The rest of the squad is made up of ‘engines’ like Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez who will ride on the front all day following Sky’s now famous (or should that be infamous) tactic of controlling the race pace. Last year it was rumoured that Sky felt they had gone into the lead too early, but having survived in yellow for the majority of last years race this shouldn’t hold any fears for Froome and co this year. The route shouldn’t hold too many fears for Froome either, lacking many of the truly steep climbs that feature at the Giro or Vuelta. His rivals will probably be banking on more on Sky struggling to maintain their control of the peloton rather than Froome breaking down. There are plenty of contenders for attacks and break away wins and the all French wild card teams will see those as their best chance of showing the sponsors logos. Katusha, Movistar and Saxo all have riders that can cause an upset and if a Contador or Rodriguez can get away then Froome and Sky will be tested.

VCSE’s GC Top 5 prediction – Froome, Contador, Porte, Rodriguez, Evans

With the focus on Chris Froome it’s easy to forget the other British rider in search of a milestone win at this years Tour. Mark Cavendish comes into the race after an impressive points victory at the Giro, where the competition favours sprinters significantly less than the Tour. Cavendish was expected to thrive at Omega Pharma after leaving Sky last year and while the focus has been on the initially spluttering lead out train that came good in Italy, a notable improvement has taken place in his climbing. Unlike most of his rivals at the Giro, Cavendish didn’t abandon the race and rode over some of the most challenging climbs of the world tour in the worst kinds of weather. Clearly he has finished 3 week tours before, but as his win in last weekends British national championships showed, his all round racing has moved on. Cavendish will start the Tour in his national champs jersey and with the first stage likely to finish in a bunch sprint he could end the day in yellow. If he pulls this off, along with a fifth consecutive win on the Champs Elysees and the Green Jersey then Britain could have another cycling knighthood to look forward to.

Cavendish will face a strong set of sprint rivals however. Lotto Belisol’s Andre Greipel heads the list that includes a two pronged assault from Argos Shimano with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. There’s also pure sprint capability at FDJ with Nacer Bouhanni, Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari, Orica Green Edge have Matty Goss and Sojasun Julien Simon. However the most likely battle for green will be had with Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. Sagan took green last year as Cavendish laboured in a Sky team focused on GC. Sagan is confident he has the edge over Cavendish on the intermediate stages if not in out right pace for a bunch sprint. Nevertheless with a team dedicated to him Cavendish should be adding another points jersey to his collection this year. 

King of the Mountains in recent years has been won by the rider who can race tactically, sweeping up the points on the smaller climbs to take a firm grip on the competition before the race reaches the highest peaks. Last years winner Thomas Voeckler has delivered some solid GC performances to go with breakaway stage wins and like Richard Virenque before him would be a popular native winner. This year might see a repeat of a wild card taking the Polkadot Jersey, but VCSE thinks the winner could come from one of the second rank of GC riders also, with Nairo Quintana a possibility of he isn’t in contention for the podium.

VCSE’s Points & KOM picks – Green Jersey Mark Cavendish, KOM Nairo Quintana 

VCSE at the Tour

In addition to our regular race coverage via our Racing Digest VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour. We will be taking stages 6 and 7 around Montpellier before shifting our base to Tours for stages 12 and 13. Hopefully we will be able to provide a flavour of the world’s greatest stage race and a fans eye view. Follow our Twitter feed (@randompan) or Facebook pages for more details.

That’s the thoughts of VCSE. What do you think? Can anyone beat Froome? Will it be Contador’s year? Can Cav beat Sagan to the points jersey? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

See what everyone else is saying. You can check out the Global Cycling Network TdF preview below or follow the links to these related articles at the foot of the page.

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