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

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

2015 Desert races – Dubai & Oman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

Vuelta a Espana 2014 final week 

Just as VCSE questioned the lack of stage wins from the leading contenders for this years Vuelta a Espana and up pops Alberto Contador to bookend the final week with two convincing victories. If it had ever been in doubt that Contador was the class act of the GC field in this years race, these were dispelled by the two results he achieved in the final week. On stage 16 and the penultimate stage 20 Chris Froome was the only one of the main protagonists who could stay close to the race leader but the proximity was strictly in Contador’s gift. He hovered on Froome’s wheel as the two ascended the final climnb to Puerto de Ancares with Purito Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde long since dispatched, before delivering the coup de grace to the Sky team leader and winning by 16 seconds.

Alberto Contador - Vuelta 2014 winner
Alberto Contador – Vuelta 2014 winner

Froome finished the race just over a minute behind Contador in second, having overhauled Valverde earlier in the week but the bare facts are that after stage 16 Contador was unassailable. With the exception of Valverde’s stage win during the first week and the few seconds that Froome gained (only to lose them again the following day) on stage 14 Contador didn’t look like he was in any danger of losing the race lead he had inherited from Valverde’s Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana.

As is the case with every grand tour it seems the final stage, a short time trial around Santiago de Compostela, proved to be anti climatic in more ways than one. The GC is normally long settled by this point and for the 2014 Vuelta the stage descended to near farce as a sudden downpour left the course near unrideable for the sharper end of the peloton. Contador was able to concede more time to Froome in 10 kilometres than he had allowed in the preceding three weeks without any fear that he might actually lose the race lead. This years edition of the Vuelta has had some fantastic stages and the organisers can hardly be blamed for the weather, but final stages are almost becoming an irrelevance as far as GC is concerned. It’s hard to imagine that the events of the final (TT) stage in Paris for the 1989 Tour could be engineered, but organisers and fans alike must all wish for a final day that is worth watching for more that just the final seconds of a bunch sprint.

Contador should (rightly) be viewed as the strongest rider in this years Vuelta, but inevitably questions remain as to whether he would have been able to beat Quintana had the Colombian stayed on his bike. With the absence of a particular rider (for whatever reason) from each of this years grand tours and, furthermore, some riders crashing out during an event we have been denied the opportunity to confirm which rider is the ‘best’ in 2014. Should it be Nibali, Quintana or Contador? Of the first two, both made winning their grand tour victories look relatively simple in the absence of the strongest opposition. Quintana started as a favourite for the Giro, rightly so, but it’s harder to make the case that Nibali started this year’s Tour as a shoe in for the maillot jaune however convincing his win appeared to be in the end. Contador showed flashes in the Tour that he was in great form, a short attack to distance Nibali the day before he (Contador) crashed out in the Vosges for example. We were denied a similar comparison between Contador and Quintana during the Vuelta, but gut feel is that Contador is probably the rider who was the strongest this year. All of this is based on speculation and relatively uninformed opinion. It’s hardly likely that Contador and Froome would have ridden this years Vuelta unless they had crashed out of the Tour, in which case we could have been looking at a Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez podium.

Which leads us to who will be challenging in the grand tours in 2015. Chris Froome has the biggest point to prove. Whichever way Sky spin things, this has been their worst year since 2011, perhaps even since their inception without a single major win in one day or stage races. Not all of this is Froome’s fault as such, although it can be argued that his bike handling did contribute to his early exit from the Tour. The suggestion was that Froome’s performances improved as the Vuelta went on, but conversely it could be said that his main rivals (bar Contador) faded as the race went on. Froome seemed almost a caricature  of himself at times; his fixation on his stem is now a staple for television commentators as much as satirists. Sky’s ability to set the pace for the peloton has waned from the beginning of this season to the point where it almost isn’t a factor anymore. This doesn’t spell the end of the team or Froome though; he was always going to struggle where changes of pace determined by gradient was a factor. It is interesting that Sky have signed, or been linked to, riders who will be able to bring some tactical insight to the team next year. Capturing Nico Roche from Tinkoff will be a real coup if Sky are going to learn how to deal with Contador next season. Worst case scenario for Sky would be that Froome cannot adapt to the new challenges he has faced this year as his rivals had to change to be able to overcome the dominance of Sky last year. He will also benefit from the return to full fitness of Richie Porte and it will be interesting to see if the Tasmanian will be asked to put his grand tour ambitions on hold for another year to ensure that Froome is best equipped for the 2015 Tour de France that will surely be his and Sky’s main target.

Vincenzo Nibali is rumoured to be considering a Giro Tour double in 2015 and VCSE would suggest that the Giro is locked on as the Astana rider ‘gets’ the symbolism of his home grand tour. His team have options now, following a strong performance by Fabio Aru at this years Vuelta to go with his fine result from the Giro earlier in the year. Contador will be at the Tour, with Movistar more likely to back Quintana next year despite resigning Valverde for three(!) more years this week. VCSE will make the bold assertion now that Alejandro Valverde will not win a grand tour in the next three years, even though he will target the Vuelta again next year. Another rider who will not win a grand tour is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha team leader has probably beaten Froome by a nose to the rider who’s had the ‘worst’ year, but this has slipped below the radar due to lower expectations. Admittedly dogged by injury ahead of the Giro, the fact is that Rodriguez has looked out of sorts in every race he has ridden since then. Can he bounce back in 2015? He’ll try for the Giro again, but it’s hard to see the circumstances in which he could beat Nibali.

Back to the Vuelta, the final week had its high point (for your correspondent at least) with Adam Hansen’s late breakaway to win on stage 19. It’s almost inevitable that Hansen will break the record for consecutive grand tour appearances now and his case for inclusion in his Lotto team can only be helped by the occasional stage win. This victory wasn’t quite the solo ride that saw him take a stage in last years Giro but it was just as enjoyable to watch. John Degenkolb picked up another stage win, but his points jersey victory was only confirmed on the final day as Valverde had been in close attention in the contest.

Reading the various posts and articles written after the Vuelta there’s been some suggestion that it has been the best of the grand tours this year. I’m not so sure about this. There’s surely a tendency to focus on what’s most immediate in the memory and much as this years edition has been enjoyable it’s hasn’t eclipsed some of the things that stick in the mind from this years Tour for example. It hasn’t gone to the wire like last years Vuelta either, no matter what you might think of the validity of Chris Horner’s win in 2013. It’s been a good race, with a worthy winner and an interesting route, but probably not the classic that some are suggesting.

Continue reading Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

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

Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Froome out, Nibali in yellow

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

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

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

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

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

Contador’s confusion

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

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

Sagan consistent but winless

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

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

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

And the Oscar goes to.. VCSE’s Racing Digest #31

Tour or California 2014 

Just as he said he would Bradley Wiggins won the Tour of California yesterday. Although his lead had been seconds rather than minutes a Wiggins victory hadn’t really looked in doubt after he took a convincing TT win on stage two. The expected challenger for the stage BMC’s Taylor Phinney had finished a disappointing (for him if not the race) 52 seconds down and two places down on the Team Sky rider. Second place on the day had gone to Garmin’s Rohan Dennis and it was the Australian who was expected to provide the competition for Wiggins for the GC. There’s a changing of the guard at Garmin now as some of the team’s aging roster head into retirement and new younger riders come to the fore. Dennis had gone out fairly early on the stage and set a time, but Wiggins destroyed the field and was the only rider to go sub 24 mins over the 20.1km course.

AToC 2014 winner - Bradley Wiggins
AToC 2014 winner – Bradley Wiggins

If Wiggins looked impressive over a short TT stage it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There was a similar outcome in the last TT stage in a week long stage race he targeted; last years Tour of Britain. Confirmation of just how strong Wiggins was riding came 24 hours later as the race headed to Mount Diablo in a repeat of one of the 2013 editions summit finishes. For everyone that was saying how lean Wiggins was looking in pursuit of the GC (he reputedly lost five kilos between finishing Paris Roubaix and starting the race) there would be someone else, including pointedly BMC DS Max Sciandri, saying that Sky would struggle to support Wiggins on the climbs. On the climb of Mount Diablo Wiggins showed that he wasn’t going to need supporters, he would make the selection himself. For much of the climb on a gradient that suited him Wiggins rode off the front at high tempo shelling riders easily. Only in the final few hundred metres did he begin to lose out as riders, notably Dennis, took up the pace. Dennis took seconds out of the lead, but crucially Wiggins still held it and once the euphoria of the stage win for Dennis died down it was hard to see how Wiggins could be toppled.

Dennis, the closest of his rivals, and the others could attack the lead on stage 6 to Mountain High but if anything Wiggins was stronger at the end as he managed to gap the Garmin rider and add another couple of seconds to his advantage. With two stages left, both of which were likely to end in a bunch sprint Wiggins looked safe and indeed that proved to be the case. He won the Tour of California by less than a minute, but his margin of superiority was far greater than the time gap showed.

So, mission accomplished then. Naturally, post race questions wondered if the win would have implications for Wiggins’ plans come July. The question was inevitable, even if it was just viewed as a US interviewer aggrandising their race. The so called ‘fourth grand tour’. Wiggins answered with a straight bat; if he was going to do the Tour it would be in support of Froome. The significant part of his answer was the ‘if’. Let’s indulge in fantasy for a second and state that Wiggins looks like the rider who one the Tour in 2012 and based on that why not let him lead Sky in the Tour. From a marketing perspective this would make total sense as Wiggins is far more popular than Froome with the wider (non-cycling) audience. Only Wiggins has the reach that could push the World Cup off the back pages.

However, Team Sky management have a strategy that is centred on Froome and everything else has to take second place to that. If Froome stamps his feet and says he doesn’t want Wiggins at the Tour then Wiggins will not be selected. Shrewder heads, like erstwhile Sky insider Shane Sutton have already indictated that could be the case even though it would seem inexplicable to many. An understanding of the thinking behind a decision like this is required. Based on performances so far this year Wiggins is arguably the stronger rider of the two. But, but Sky made their choice last year. Both riders need careful handling, but Froome has the kind of single mindedness  that Wiggins can’t maintain, particularly in a team which, even if it was once, is no longer centred on him.

It will take a massive drop in form and or fitness by Froome for Sky to look again to Wiggins for the Tour as leader, even if he could be a favourite again. Everything that Sky have done so far indicates that they have bet the house on Froome to defend his title. Wiggins may yet be selected as a superdomestique for the Tour, but VCSE suspects that there will be a few more twists yet.

The Tour of California feels like there are races within the race as it always seems to manage to throw up an unusual result or two besides the GC battle and the sprint stages. This years edition was no different. In fact stages 4 and 5 provided two different outcomes that wouldn’t have been predicted ahead of the race. Stage 4 was a bit of a comedy of errors as the sprinters teams miscalculated the catch for the break and it was left to the third division US based teams to duke it out for the win. Taylor Phinney redeemed himself from the TT by soloing off the front on the final climb of stage 5 to take the win in Santa Barbara. Phinney’s only other stage win came in similar, if less relaxed, circumstances last year in Poland. He had the time to bow theatrically this time around and it’s no surprise that a win for a marquee US rider goes down very well at this race.

The leftovers were divided between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. Cavendish appearing at the race for the first time in Omega Pharma Quick Step colours bookended the race with a win in the first and then the final stages. Cannondale probably breathed a huge sigh of relief that Sagan was able to take at least one stage. As good as he is, in an out and out sprint with Cavendish it’s really no contest. Cavendish’s first win has been replayed more than normal following the release of video from the on bike camera of runner up John Degenkolb. The UCI have suggested that cameras could be allowed in some races and based on the footage below it should be adopted as quickly as possible, albeit on a similar delay to the radio clips used on F1 coverage.

Giro d’Italia 2014 – week one stages 4 through 9 

One word to sum up the Giro so far; attritional. After losing Dan Martin before the first (TTT) stage had even finished, Marcel Kittel was gone as well and we weren’t even in Italy yet. The first stage on Italian soil in the far south of the country and finishing in the port city of Bari good weather might have been expected. Instead with the race visiting the area for the first time in thirty years we had rain, the difference being that this was as unusual in Bari as it was common in Ireland. Cue a pretty much neutralised stage that was eventually taken by FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni after the Giant team, trying to win in the absence of team leader Kittel, suffered a mechanical.

With Kittel gone it’s almost worth Bouhanni staying on at the race as it’s hard to see who will offer much opposition in the sprints. Bouhanni, to use a football analogy is a Europa league rider with ambitions to join the Champions league with Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel. Now that the Giant rider has abandoned he’s facing the equivalent of the lower divisions, although it’s strange that Elia Viviani hasn’t challenged more.

That story is a bit part as far as week one of the Giro is concerned. The big story has been the decimation of the field; a combination of bad weather and accidents (caused by the bad weather) robbing the race of contenders and / or key support riders. Biggest victims of misfortune are Katusha who have lost Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampolo Caruso and Angel Vicioso. It emerged that Rodriguez had started the race with tow broken ribs, sustained during Ardennes week. Added to that a broken finger during stage 7 to Monte Cassino and J Rod was out. If that was bad news and the accident that caused Caruso to abandon looked worse during prolonged camera shots in the aftermath of the crash what happened to Vicioso is truly tragic. He has been forced to retire, not just from the race but from the sport after suffering a triple fracture of his femur on the same stage.

Orica’s Michael Matthews won the stage in the Maglia Rosa having held the lead since the race left Ireland the previous weekend. Matthews had fancied his chances the previous day, but had managed to avoid the carnage on stage 7 and get away with a select group for the climb to Cassino. The key beneficiary as far as the GC was concerned was Cadel Evans. There was some mutterings that Evans shouldn’t have pressed the advantage with so many riders effected by the crash, but wiser heads dismissed it as a racing incident. It wasn’t as if Matthews teammates weren’t impacted either; Orica lost two riders on the stage due to the crash.

Evans takes a lead of around a minute into week two. At this point in the race it’s probably not enough of a lead, particularly with the final weeks climbs to come. Evans at least has a strong rider in support inside the top 10 and this could pay dividends if the likes of Rigoberto Uran or, more likely, Nairo Quintana decides to attack. Quintana has the most time to make up, 1.45 back on Evans and if the places were reversed you would suspect that the Movistar rider would feel more comfortable defending that lead than the Australian who will suffer on the steeper climbs to come. Uran will probably fulfil a watching brief for now, although a similar attack to the one that brought his stage win in last years race could really shake up the GC. Like Evans, Uran has some strong domestiques who he can use to cover attacks if they come.

For home fans the top ten has three Italians who might well feature on the podium if not the top step. Of the three the one with the most to celebrate on todays rest day is Lampre’s Diego Ulissi who has already taken two stage wins. He’s a versatile rider and both of his wins have come from late surges in the last few hundred metres. He’s unlikely to be given the chance to attack for a breakaway win, but if he can hang with the best climbers in the next couple of weeks he might nick another win or two, even if the top prize is likely to elude him. Fabio Aru has inherited the Astana team leadership now that Michele Scarponi has lost time following the week one carnage. He’s least likely of the three in VCSE’s view. Which leaves AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. Tipped in the VCSE Giro preview, Pozzovivo looked strong is yesterdays stage and put time into Evans to move within a minute and a half of the lead. What he lacks however is a really strong set of domestiques to back him and this could be the difference between a podium finish or just a stage win or two this year. Like Aru, Rafal Majka has ‘benefited’ from the demise of his team leader at Tinkoff Saxo Nico Roche. Majka currently sits third and could build on a strong performance in last years race.

The week ahead has a 42km TT and two mountain stages over the weekend. With another (uphill) TT and three more mountain stages to come it’s unlikely that this week will see the final selection as far as GC is concerned but any pretenders will be eliminated by the time the race reaches Montecampione on Sunday afternoon.

VCSE’s Giro 2014 Preview

The first of this year’s grand tours begins on Friday in Belfast. Unless you’re a resident of the Emerald Isle the 2014 edition of the Giro d’Italia feels a bit low key. Last year’s route promised epic stages with classic climbs like the Stelvio and Gavia and a match up between Vincenzo Nibali racing for his home tour against the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins. As things turned out Wiggins never really offered much of a challenge for the Maglia Rosa and mother nature intervened to curtail or even cancel the marquee stages.

Vincenzo Nibali - Giro 2013 Winner
Vincenzo Nibali – Giro 2013 Winner

There’s been something of a changing of the guard since then with Wiggins pretty much finished as a grand tour GC contender and with Chris Froome how seen as the man to beat Nibabli will not defend his title, choosing instead to race against Froome in the Tour. Giro organisers will miss Nibabli but will somewhat happier if they manage to avoid any positive drug tests this year (even posthumously). Last year’s wild card entry Vini Fantini had questionably included admitted doper Danilo Diluca in their line up and his subsequent positive for EPO suggested that this particular leopard couldn’t change it’s spots.

So this years race lacks much of a narrative outside of the three stages that will take place in Ireland over the coming weekend. The GC contenders aren’t from the first rank (with the possible exception of Joaquim Rodriguez) , but this could actually make for a more interesting race and the chance that the final GC positions could be decided in the final week.

Riders to watch at the 2014 Giro

With Nibali missing Astana have handed the team leadership to Michele Scarponi. He’ll be backed by a decent group of domestiques, but it’s hard to see him as the potential winner. VCSE is surprised to see Scarponi attracting stronger odds than Garmin’s Dan Martin, although this is probably due to Scarponi’s likely consistency which should see him safely inside the top 10. Martin is Garmin’s GC leader for this years race, even though 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal is also present. Jonathan Vaughters wants Martin to step up and show he can be a feature in a three week stage race and the ‘Irishman’ seems to be taking some form into the race. VCSE suspects that Martin will fade early on, but may come back with a big stage win towards the end of the race.

The bookies favourtite is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. The Columbian who swept up a podium place and the KOM and young rider jerseys at last years Tour still has to play second fiddle to Alejandro Valverde in the Spanish sponsored team so he leads at the Giro. The story unravels a little when you remember that Quintana hasn’t done anything much this season. Last year he could point to a stage race win in the Basque country. This year; nothing like that. It feels a little bit like Quintana is being promoted on the back of his results from last year. Undoubtably talented, VCSE just isn’t sure Quintana has the legs this year. He might be a rider that stays out of trouble until the big mountain stages and then come to the fore, but if Quintana doesn’t work it’s hard to see Movistar snatching stage wins the way they did in 2013.

We’ve already mentioned Joaquim Rodriguez who targeted the Giro early in the year in the hope that he could make the step from podium to winner in a grand tour. He’s collected a podium at all three grand tours now and feels that he has unfinished business at the Giro after going so close in 2012. Trouble is he’s carrying an injury from his classics appearances and unless he’s undergone some sort of miracle cure in the last two weeks he isn’t going to figure and might even be an abandon before the race is over. J-Rod isn’t attracting great odds, but the bookies money looks safe based on actual racing.

Another rider who targetted the race early is BMC’s Cadel Evans. Unlike Rodriguez, Evans has form too with a win in the Giro del Trentino in the last few weeks. Evans was a bit of surprise package in last years race, pretty much written off beforehand, but doggedly clinging on in the GC to finish a distant third to Nibabli. In the absence of stronger opposition and supposing VCSE has got it right so far with our predictions Evans should be disappointed if he doesn’t get a repeat appearance on the Giro podium and maybe even go one or two places better than 2013. Last years podium triumvate was rounded out with Rigoberto Uran, then of Sky now of Omega Pharma Quick Step. Subject of the OPQS ‘are we a GC team?’ schizo transfer policy Uran must have thought he had arrived when he joined the team. Unfortunately, for Uran it’s been ‘Mo’money.. mo’ problems’ as his form has dipped and he looks emasculated by Michael Kwiatowski. The saving grace for Uran is that Kwiatowski will race the Tour and Uran will lead in Italy. Can he forget that his team wonder why they spent the money and do something (maybe even remind them why they spent the money in the first place)? It will be interesting to see which Uran turns up on Friday.

There’s a few outsiders to keep a look out for; good bets for the top ten or a stage win or two. Tinkoff Saxo will be led by Nico Roche who came of age in last years Vuelta and who has really grown in stature since joing Bjarne Riis’ team. Roche kept up bravely when the climbs went into double digit inclines in Spain and unless he’s developed an extra gear in the off season he will probably come similarly undone in Italy. He’s a good shout for a medium mountain stage and top ten finish. Leading Roche’s old team AG2R is Domenico Pozzovivo an Italian in a French team, a possible KOM or stage winner and a likely top ten contender.

Last years points jersey was taken by Mark Cavendish, giving him a points victory in each of the grand tours. As with the Tour the points jersey in the Giro is not a shoe in for a sprinter and many expected Cavendish to abandon his attempt rather than take on the highest climbs. The fact that his nearest rival for the Maglia Rosso was Evans indicates how hard Cavendish had to work, right up until the final day, to win. It’s less likely that a sprinter will claim the prize this year unless Marcel Kittel decides that any Cav can do, he can do also. Rather like the GC, the remainder of the sprint pack are of the second rank, although Elia Viviani’s recent wins in Turkey suggest that he could do damage. Doing damage, if not actually winning anything the two wheel equivilant of hand grenades with their pins removed are FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni and Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari.

VCSE’s Giro 2014 GC Tips 

1. Quintana 2. Evans 3. Uran 

Stages to watch at the 2014 Giro 

Stage 3 – Armagh to Dublin 

OK so this stage is proceeded by another sprint stage but when the race crosses the border into the south we’ll see how much the Giro has really been taken to Irish hearts. This is stage to be watched as much for the crowds as it will be for the actual result. Kittel could claim the Maglia Rosa ahead of the peloton’s return to Italy on Tuesday.

Stage 6 – Sassano to Monte Cassino

Scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second world war this is one of the longest stages in the race and finishes with a climb to the monastery. Mostly flat for the majority of the stage, it’s not much of climb so might fall to a puncheur or a late break.

Stage 8 – Foligno to Monte Copiolo

A cat 1 followed by a cat 2 with another cat 1 summit finish should see the first GC selection and round of the first week proper of this years Giro.

Stage 14 – Aglie to Oropa 

A week after stage 8 and another cat 1, 2, 1 combination and summit finish to further shake up the GC. If the race does follow a similar pattern to last year, we will know the winner at the end of this stage. If…

Stage 16 – Ponte di Legno to Val Martello Martelltal

The stage that never was from last year with the Stelvio and Gavia tackled in one day and a summit finish thrown in for fun. RCS will be praying for good weather.

Stage 19 – Bassano del Grappa to Cima Grappa

To get over the climbs of the Giro and lose the race in a time trial could seem unfair, but this TT is straight up. If some GC riders can take an advantage through a stronger team this stage is about one rider against the climb and the clock only. If stage 19 does decide the outcome of the 2014 Giro the winner will deserve his victory.

Stage 20 – Maniago to Monte Zoncolan 

The race may have already been one, but the finish will still be spectacular. Perhaps the only marquee climb that was missing from last years race and given star billing this year.

Giro 2014 Route

A victory for old men and baldies – VCSE’s Racing Digest #19

Vuelta a Espana final week

What a difference a week makes. In our last post we wondered whether or not Chris Horner would have be able to continue to bring the fight to (at that time) race leader Vincenzo Niblai in the final week of Spain’s grand tour. Horner was lying in second place, 50 seconds behind as the race entered its final week and its final day in the Pyrenees. 

Français : Christopher Horner au Tour de Calif...
Christopher Horner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weekend stages from week 2 suffered the misfortune of poor weather in proportion to how much they had been built up by the organisers and in previews. Inclement weather had a similar impact on the high mountain stages in the Giro earlier this year also and there was a slight feeling of anticlimax as the Vuelta entered its final week. The second week of the race had lacked some of the drama of the first week too. With one stage to go before the second rest day Nibali looked comfortable and unlike the earlier stages when the leaders jersey had seemed like a burden he was unwilling to shoulder by the end of the second week the Sicilian and his Astana teammates were geared to defend the lead.

If the wheels didn’t completely fall off for Nibali on stage 16 they were severely loosened. Horner far from fading was showing signs of being the stronger of the two GC rivals as Nibali cracked for the first time.

But first we had more signs of potential renaissance for French Cycling as Warren Barguil won a second stage. In the break again as with his earlier stage victory Barguil was caught as the ramps of the final climb steepened. It’s perhaps crediting Barguil with the experience of, say, a Chris Horner to suggest that his second win was planned that way. Maybe Sky’s Rigoberto Uran burnt to many matches catching the Frenchman. Whatever the tactics, or sheer good fortune on display it was Barguil that outsprinted everyone to the line, if you can sprint up a 10% ramp.

As Barguil crossed the line to yet more ‘the new Hinault’ comparisons there was drama unfolding in the GC further down the climb. Joaquim Rodriguez attacked and only Horner could respond. Nibali found himself on the back of the small group of remaining GC riders. As Horner extended the gap the Astana rider was being overhauled by the lower reaches of the top 10 like Net App’s Leopold Konig. In what would become a bit of a theme for the race Alejandro Valverde, unable to match the sharp bursts of acceleration of a Rodriguez or Nibali, often got back on as normal speeds resumed. He and Thibaut Pinot, having something of a grand tour rehabilitation on the Vuelta, were with Horner as he crossed the line. As Nibali finished the stage Horner was 22 seconds closer to the man that, for now at least, retained the race lead.

The final ‘flat’ stage came on Wednesday and the last chance for the sprinters before the finale in Madrid on Sunday. However, another theme of this years race has been the unexpected happening and stage 17 was no different. With so many of the first line sprinters missing from the race a winner emerging from an unheralded source or a win for someone less recognised for their fast leg was a distinct possibility. As the teams tried to get themselves organised with all of the coordination of herding cats a Belkin rider sprang clear from the bunch with some way still to go. There seems to be a collective blink from the peloton when this happens along the lines of “He didn’t? Did he?”. That the man going clear was Tour top 10 finisher and sometime GC contender Bauke Mollema explains the collective surprise of the bunch. By the time the peloton had pinched themselves and got into gear the damage had been done and Belkin had their prize to take home from Spain.

The GC would be decided on the next three stages that all featured summit finishes. Sky were another team who had quickly shed their GC ambitions with Sergio Henao looking exposed pretty much as soon as the race started going uphill on stage 2. With his compatriot (and probably the better hope for GC) Rigoberto Uran bound for Omega Pharma Sky refocused their ambitions towards stage wins. Sky’s domestiques have looked a bit more human since the Tour and it was surprise Tour withdrawl Vasil Kiryenka that delivered a consolation for Sky at the Vuelta. Kiryenka at least looked as if he found the going harder than he seemed to while riding like a metronome on the the front of the peloton in the early season races. Teams don’t hire riders like Kiryenka for stage wins and he actually smiled as he crossed the line. Nibali’s race was beginning to fall apart in a repeat of stage 16 as the GC approached the finish. As Horner rode away from him again the cushion that had lost a significant amount of stuffing on Monday was left almost empty by the end of stage 18.

Further down the GC Saxo’s Nicolas Roche was enjoying the sort of positive press the English speaking media often transfer to the Irish in the absence of a homegrown rider to cheer. Roche did a lot to generate this goodwill by being a willing and very open interviewee even when he had lost time during the second week. He was engaged in his own battle with Domenico Pozzovivo, riding for Roche’s old team AG2R, for 5th place. Vying with Roche for most cooperative with the media was Horner, always ready with something quotable, homespun or both. Inevitably for Horner, his age, the fact that he’s an ex teammate of Lance Armstrong and most importantly his performance led to questions about whether or not his race was something we should believe in. Unfortunately for the American this is where he has been less at ease in front of the microphone. Jens Voight commentating on ITV’s coverage suggested that Horner was perhaps “..less tired” than his rivals but the questions and doubts will probably continue to run parallel to the plaudits that have come Horner’s way.

Horner overhauled Nibali’s 3 second advantage on stage 19 and took the same margin into the penultimate day on the Alto de L’Angliru. Rodriguez had taken a few seconds back on Valverde by winning the previous day and the race to decide the podium positions would be the under card for the battle for the red jersey between Horner and Nibali. In the current issue of Pro Cycling magazine Nibali and his teammates talked about how they had upset the science of Sky’s attempt to win Tirreno Adriatico for Chris Froome by old fashioned tactics. This resonated during the stage as Astana put so many riders in the break an observer could have been forgiven for thinking that Nibali had already thrown in the towel. The Angliru represented less than 10% of the total distance of the stage but all the action took place on its unforgiving gradients. As riders from the break began to come back to the leaders Nibali attacked. Initially Horner and the others appeared to have nothing in response but slowly they were able to get back on to Nibali’s wheel. Nibali put in a number of accelerations as the climb went on but he never had the same distance he took in his first attack. At this point his teammates who had gone in the break should have come into play. Sean Kelly commented that he expected the Astana domestiques to “..stop and wait” for their team leader. No doubt part of the Astana post race inquiry will be to ask why they didn’t play their cards in hand better but the moment and advantage was lost.

The Angliru shrouded in fog represented something of war zone, sheer numbers of fans and the gradient preventing the camera bikes from keeping up with the action. As another French rider, FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde claimed the win and France’s best grand tour performance at least in terms of stages wins since 1990 we waited to see who would emerge from the clouds for the GC. Horner wasn’t able to maintain his out of the saddle for the entire climb but he was able to put 30 seconds plus into Nibali and all but confirm his victory in the Vuelta 2013.

Horner entered the race without a contract for next year; given his age this was not surprising. He has apparently been offered a year by Trek now and it’s not hard to imagine that they will want to milk the marketing opportunities that a ‘farewell’ race program for Horner and Voight could bring. This assumes that there won’t be any skeletons in the cupboard. Horner wants is to savour something that “…you may never see again”. Some commentators already see this as hubris. It says so much about the a current levels of trust in the sport that a ‘surprise’ win cannot be enjoyed as just that. Horner has won one of the premier events in the cycling calendar and the questions that come with that are inevitable. It’s also probably incumbent on anyone winning a major race these days to set out their position on doping. This may yet come, but VCSE suspects that questions will remain, sadly, about the provenance of the victory of the oldest ever grand tour winner.

Tour of Britain begins 

The week long Tour of Britain has begun and VCSE will be at the race again this year. There’s a really strong line up this year, surpassing even last year’s when the country was basking in Bradley Wiggins Tour victory and gold medals at the Olympics. Wiggins features again and is supposedly “motivated” for this years race. Sadly, Wiggins has been quoted similarly for his other ‘comeback’ races this year and he treated last years event with  a certain amount of disdain, riding back down the route at one point in search of a teammate before climbing off and abandoning.

The teammate that Wiggins was seeking to round up on that stage last year was Mark Cavendish and he is present again this year with Omega Pharma. Cav’s attempts to win opening stages of races hasn’t been going well of late and today’s finish in Scotland was no different. Omega Pharma’s latest incarnation of the Cavendish sprint train was present with Alessandro Petacchi. The misfires that have effected the squad all year were present too unfortunately and Cavendish had given up the chase long before the line. Petacchi was second and may expect to be reminded of what he’s been hired to do if Cav isn’t in the philosophical mood he was in after losing the last stage of the Tour.

Last years winner Jonathan Tiernan Locke is absent, Sky have selected him for the races currently taking place in Canada and JTL is in a team including Froome and Porte. They will no doubt argue that putting him in that squad is an indication of the importance of that series to them but for VCSE it’s perhaps another example of Sky’s PR mismanagement. Surely they can’t suggest that given the choice Tiernan Locke wouldn’t rather be in the UK. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the rider leaves the team at the end of his contract, if not sooner.

An interesting match up for the GC and certainly the time trial at the TOB will be Wiggins verses Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. Much is being made of the TT stage being run over the same 10 mile distance that is used by cycling clubs across the land. Dowsett attacked towards the end of today’s stage and VCSE suspects that he’s up for the challenge of beating the illustrious Sky team leader in their home race.

We will be at the race for the start of the penultimate stage on Saturday and will look to bring you pictures, video and comment from the day in our next post.

Curses! – VCSE’s Racing Digest #18

Finally! - Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12
Finally! – Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12

He got away with it; despite those pesky kids! (apologies for the Scooby Do reference). After losing out by a tyre’s width to Zdenek Stybar last week Philippe Gilbert finally managed to do what has so far eluded him this season and win something in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. Gilbert had shown real class last week by not having a dig at Stybar who hadn’t exactly worked for his win, so it did feel like there was some karma chi love in the air for the Belgian in Tarragona. Staying with the whole ‘curse’ theme, the guy that Gilbert beat to the line was erstwhile Norwegian champ Edvald Boasson Hagen. Sky, who give the impression of a team that have pretty much given up on sprinters have allocated (or should that be allowed) EBH a bit of a roving brief for the flatter stages at the Vuelta. This was also the case at the Tour and if the opportunity presents itself then Boasson Hagen can freelance a bit in search of a win. Gilbert of course had other ideas, but he needed to bury himself to first catch and then overhaul the Sky rider at the line. It says a lot about the last gap nature of the BMC team principal’s win that there were no time gaps shown for the first 40 riders over the line.

Philippe Gilbert’s win is probably one of the biggest victories that BMC will take this year. The team have shown more form in recent months with only Cadel Evans podium at the Giro as the early season highlight. Since the Tour we have seen a return to form for Thor Hushovd in addition to Taylor Phinney’s maiden win and Tejay van Garderen’s second US victory of the season at the USA Pro Challenge. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta, the uphill finish to Montjuic in Barcelona and of course the world champs in Valkenburg offered a similar profile. BMC have thrown their efforts in this years race behind Gilbert and it’s clear that he is great form in Spain. In addition to last weeks near miss he also featured in yesterdays stage to Andorra finishing 15th having been in second place at one point on the final climb. There’s talk now of a possible defence of his world champions jersey but VCSE suspects the course will not suit him as much as current Vuelta leader Vincenzo Nilbali or Chris Froome.

VCSE’s own curse of hyperbole struck this week as the racing has felt a little lacklustre after the excitement of the first week. A rest day followed by the individual TT probably didn’t help things. The TT saw Chris Horner lose the lead to Nibali again, although this time the Italian was happier about taking it over with the prospect of some heavy mountain stages at the weekend. Nibali rode a decent time trial as did GC rival Nico Roche who was a similar vein of confidence to Gilbert. Horner was the big loser on GC and while pre TT he might have seen the benefit of being able to see everyone else’s times on the stage itself he was the rider who was stopping everyone from being able to go home. Part of this was down to the contest for the win being decided by two riders well down on GC; Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. In the sparring between the rivals for the world TT champs this was a convincing victory for Cancellara. Although some are now questioning Martin’s solo break training ride as not quite the best practice for defending his world crown VCSE predicts that the German will probably hold sway in Italy.

Friday’s stage was likely to be the sprinters last chance of a win before the race entered the high mountains. Unfortunately for them the peloton did not get organised in time to chase down a quality and numerous break away that included Bauke Mollema, Benet Intxausti and Michele Scarponi. Unfortunately for the break they seemed to forget just who and how many were in their escape and as the course wound its way through a series of bends on the way to the line Argos Shimano domestique Warren Barguil slipped off the front. As he dug for victory the remainder of the break were busy looking at one another and metaphorically saying “No.. I insist.. You go first..”. End result a win for the 21 year old Barguil. By the time Mollema and co’ had realised the error the damage was done and the victory sealed.

The first of a double header of high mountain stages came on Saturday with the race due to cross the highest point of this years Vuelta over the Port de Envalira and into a summit finish in Andorra. Bad weather had closed in earlier than expected and Vincenzo Nibali was asked how he would cope. He described conditions “ everyday in the Giro” but the stage took a heavy toll of riders with 14 abandoning including Cannondale’s Ivan Basso who was dropped and then succumbed to the cold. Such are the difficulties for the host broadcaster that much of what would have been seen as prime stage for TV was lost due to low cloud over the climbs, the Envalira being described to pictures from a fixed camera at the finish line.

When live pictures were restored we were greeted by the prospect of a remarkable solo win by Cannondale rider Daniele Ratto. Just 23 Ratto joins the list of first time winners from this years Vuelta, that if nothing else highlight the unpredictable nature of the race. Ratto’s face was a picture as he crossed the line and savoured the win, particularly as he made the final kilometre look incredibly hard such was his exhaustion by this stage. Alejandro Valverde who had lost key lieutenant Pablo Lastras the day before was dropped at one stage but he staged an amazing fight back on the last climb that saw him overhaul many of his GC rivals who had been shelled, including Nico Roche. At the head of the leaders group it was Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali going toe to toe. At one stage Horner looked as if he could put some time into Nibali but as the line approached it was the Italian who was stronger gaining a time bonus as putting a couple of seconds into the American. Horner definitely had the appearance of the one who blinked first and with similar weather forecasted for today’s race it was going to be interesting to see if he had anything left to throw at the race leader.

As it was the weather didn’t do much and the leaders played nicely with one another. With a finish across the border in France it was a French rider on a French team who took the win; FDJ’s Alexandre Geniez. After the televisual anticlimax of the previous days stage, today’s didn’t offer a lot of drama either. Nibali at this point seems to be only looking at Horner and it was interesting to hear the American interviewed confirming that he is more anxious about attacks from Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde. Horner didn’t look troubled today, but neither did he look able to put in an attack that would unsettle Nibali. Nico Roche gained some time back on the stage and is now a few seconds of 5th after tumbling out of his podium place yesterday.

As the race enters its final week there’s another day to come in the Pyrenees before the second and final rest day. The penultimate stage on Saturday on the Angliru may yet perform the task that the race organisers always wish and decide who ultimately wins the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.

So close – VCSE’s Racing Digest #17

Vuelta a Espana week 1 

For a rider who suggested he might use the final grand tour of the year as preparation for the world championship Vicenzo Nibali spent the first week of the Vuelta as a somewhat reluctant race leader. The Shark had indicated that he felt he had a strong Astana team supporting him and that he was feeling good ahead of the race, but he was still adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Astana’s victory in the team time trial was still something of a surprise though. Radioshack and Omega Pharma were being marshalled by Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin respectively. If the rumours are to be believed Cancellara is targeting both the road and TT world’s and he has been showing more of an interest in TT’s since returning to racing after the spring classics. With Astana winning the question was who would be donning the red leaders jersey. Anyone but Nibali was the answer, although a rider of his skill wouldn’t be seen obviously hitting the brakes to avoid crossing the line first.

English: Nicolas Roche (IRE) at stage 17 of th...
Vuelta stage winner and wk 1 leader Nico Roche in AG2R days(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first week has thrown up some stage wins that the neutral fan can enjoy. Leopold Konig leading wild card invitee’s Net App Endura almost snatched victory on stage two only to be overhauled in the closing metres by Katusha’s Dani Moreno. Moreno in turn was caught at the moment the final climb leveled out by Saxo Bank rider Nicolas Roche. Moving to Saxo from AG2R caused many people to question the motivation in this son of a grand tour winner. Roche has seemed happy riding in support of Alberto Contador at this years Tour and he appears to have come out of that race in better shape than Saxo’s nominal team leader for the Vuelta Roman Kreuziger. While Kreuziger hasn’t really started this week Roche has collected jersey’s as well as stage wins wearing the combined and KOM jerseys before taking the ultimate prize of the leaders red jersey ahead of today’s stage from Nibali.

Nibali wished the leader was anyone but him earlier in the week. Chris Horner who took over the GC after winning stage 3 was upset to find himself handing the jersey back to Nibali after stage 4. Nibali’s response was that the Radioshack rider was “..welcome to it”. Horner’s win proved that he wasn’t the only ‘old man’ in Radioshack colours that could win a stage.* The sprint stages over the next three days were quiet for the GC but anything but for the viewers. Actually, that’s not entirely true; the stage 7 finish was good, stage 6 will live long in the memory. The curse of the rainbow jersey seems well settled on Philippe Gilbert’s shoulders and with this years championship imminent he remains without a win. He probably would have had one after staging a late break in the last few kilometres on Friday but for Zdenek Stybar his co-escapee. Stybar opportunistically set off in pursuit of Gilbert and after doing a few turns to ensure their break ‘stuck’ left the hard work to the world champion. As things stood the gap on the line was a tyre’s width and you were left with the sense that if Stybar had taken his turn Gilbert might have won. He was gracious in defeat, philosophical even and that elevates him in VCSE’s opinion.

As exciting as Gilbert’s near miss was Tony Martin’s result the day before is probably the greatest 7th place pro cycling will ever see. Martin had set out to achieve a solo break on stage 6 as a very public training ride for the world TT championship. As the end of the stage approached his lead had fallen to a matter of seconds as the sprinters teams lined up to lead out their fast men. Then the lead was going back up; Martin riding between 65-70 KPH was average 5-10 KPH faster than the peloton. It was out of the seat stuff as Martin summoned his last reserves of energy to go for the line. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that riders should never look back and it’s more likely that Martin was already so far into the red that he didn’t have anything left to counter the onrushing sprinters. Of course, they were never going to pull up before the line and let Martin have the glory of what would have been one of the most incredible stage wins ever seen. Respect came later, for the riders like actual stage winner Michael Morkov there was their moment in the sun to enjoy first. Martin later revealed he received more messages of support, condolence.. whatever following this result than any of his world championships. Check it out for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Konig, remember him? The Net App team leader had his revenge on Saturday. With a near 1000 metre ascent to the finish even Nibali struggled on the final climb of the stage. Net App had ‘done a Sky’ on the front of the bunch all day but it was a question of timing for Konig after his stage 2 attempt had been squashed by Moreno. The Katusha rider had a dig here too, but Konig had the legs to take a major win for his division two outfit to go with his last stage victory at this years Tour of California. Nibali’s difficulties handed the race lead to Roche and capped a week that even he would not have dared to dream about at the start of the race. With Kreuziger picked as leader following his strong showing at the Tour it’s clear it wasn’t part of Saxo’s plan either.

Moreno keeps popping up though. Today’s stage with a uphill finish through town of the kind that Joaquim Rodriguez specialises in. With a gradient of 27% in places it was Moreno who powered ahead of his Katusha team leader and into the race lead as the race enters it’s second week. Added to his stage win earlier in the week Saxo might not be the only team switching priorities.