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.


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

It’s on… racing to the sun via the two seas – VCSE’s Racing Digest #23

Sky find form in the classics.. or do they?

Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.

Classics breakthrough for Sky? - Ian Stannard
Classics breakthrough for Sky? – Ian Stannard

Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.

While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.

Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.

So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.

Boonen’s back

Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.

We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.

Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.

His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.

Sky upset the ASO applecart

With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.

The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?

In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.

With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?

Valverde – pas normale?

After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.

What do you do with a rider like Valverde?* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #22

Ruta del Sol 2014

The Ruta del Sol or Tour of Andalucia or Vuelta a Andalucia (depending on your preference) finished last weekend. The only ‘live’ cycling on offer to the armchair fan last week was shown perhaps less because of the race’s sixtieth anniversary than the fact that coverage was available for Eurosport. Most of the ‘smaller’ races shown on the digital channel are commentated on from a studio in London, probably not in homage to the days of Murray Walker and James Hunt sharing a microphone during the BBC’s grand prix coverage in the 70’s and 80’s, but for obvious cost reasons. Eurosport had people on the ground in on the Costa del Sol in the shape of the delightful and multilingual Laura Meseguer and it may not have been entirely unconnected that we enjoyed rather a lot of pre-stage interviews mixed in as the race unfolded.

Not everyone's favourite - Alejandro Valverde
Not everyone’s favourite – Alejandro Valverde

Any confusion over what to call the race arises in VCSE’s view from the fact that the Ruta del Sol is less a tour of Andulicia than one of those coach bound day trips marketed to pensioners in the back of local newspapers. The Ruta lasted four days with an opening prologue followed by three stages. This years Vuelta a Espana kicks off in the south so there was some interest in seeing what passes for a cat 1 climb in southern Spain. Sum up; they seem a bit easier than the ones in Galicia.

In the opening prologue it looked for a long time that Sky super domestique and automaton Vasil Kiryenka would take the win and leaders jersey. Sky had Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins at the race and whatever their respective roles were likely to be for the rest of the week Wiggins would normally start out favourite against the clock. So it goes, and Wiggins did indeed beat Porte but he finished down on Kiryenka and Geraint Thomas. A top ten finish suggested that Wiggins was trying at least at this point. By the closing km’s of stage one it appeared that some of the demons of 2013 hadn’t been completely exorcised as he was one of the first of Sky’s train to pull out of the line on the final climb. This could (of course) be unfair; the plan for Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France has already been heavily trailed with Wiggins headed for Paris Roubaix and, perhaps, team leadership at the Vuelta. Nevertheless, knowing what we do now about how Wiggins had been reluctant to ride the Giro last year is it possible that Sky are pushing him towards races simply to earn something (anything) from their investment? In fairness to Wiggins he repaid his employers and more in winning the Tour ahead of Dave Brailsford’s five-year target and a small stage race early in the season is the wrong place to make sweeping conclusions. Wiggins remains a more compelling and complex character than the man who has usurped him as leader Chris Froome and the racing scene seems more enjoyable when Wiggins is enjoying his racing as with last years Tour of Britain.

But enough for now of the trials of one fallen hero and on to another. Alejandro Valverde was victorious in the prologue and in the next two stages. A three-time winner of the Ruta del Sol, there was still some surprise that he won the prologue. Valverde is a pretty divisive rider for reasons that can be counted off on each finger should you have enough hands and the inclination to do so. His unrepentant approach to doping historically and to quote a more recent example his apparent surrender during the worlds last year denying countryman Joaquim Rodriguez the win. With the lovely Laura on hand to interview and Rob Hatch providing a fluent translation we were treated to Valverde thanking his team and family if not his doctor at the end of each stage.

Anti doping has caught up, if not exactly caught on in Spain in recent years, although there is a sense that the relative decline of the countries sporting greats (not only in cycling) have paralleled these developments. It doesn’t feel right to be too cynical this early in the season, but it will be interesting to see if Valverde can repeat this kind of form outside Spain as the season progresses. VCSE suspects not.

Marcel Kittel was absent from the race, so Giant Shimano had to look elsewhere for a result. Tom Dumoulin came close in the prologue and in a break on the final stage. While the dutchman received no help from his compatriots on the rival (dutch) Belkin squad, he might have been better selecting one of Giant’s Propel aero frames for his breakaway. Last year Giant were bike sponsors for Belkin, although this team ran under the nom de plume Blanco until the Tour in a very similar team uniform to this years Giant Shimano outfit. Looking at Dumoulin pedalling squares as he attempted to stay clear of the peloton on stage four VCSE wondered if it was possible that Giant had saved themselves some money by recycling some of the old Blanco bikes into the Giant Shimano service course this year.

Tour of Oman 2014

It’s felt a bit like a television column as much as road racing comment so far this year. Not that this years racing has been short rationed. So far, VCSE has enjoyed the Dubai Tour as well as the Ruta del Sol live on Eurosport where last year it was highlights only from races like the Tour of Oman.

In many ways Oman is the poor relation to the other races held in the Arabian peninsula during February, although it often serves up the most interesting stages. Last year saw Chris Froome taking, what seemed inexplicable at the time, his first ever stage race victory. His performance was made more emphatic by the riders he saw off on the climb to the top of the Green Mountain; Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. Froome was back this year to defend his title, although the field was a little less than stellar to challenge him. The viewing was a bit underdone too. Unable to get the funding to deliver live racing a half hour highlights package was served up the day after each stage accompanied by the sort of martial music that would top the charts in North Korea.

It’s disappointing that a race that offers far more than its counterparts in Dubai and Qatar cannot pull in the revenue to justify a live feed. No doubt it’s out there somewhere (Al Jazeera Sport anyone?) but this years version felt, like the Ruta del Sol above, something less than it promised.

Rain stops play

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

Rain might not, but snow certainly will. Last year VCSE returned from a weeks riding on the Isle of Wight ready to enjoy the first of the Belgian spring races, Kuurne Brussels Kuurne. You know how it is, avoid social media for the day and then hit the Sky Plus box with an appropriate beverage to enjoy the action. At the time the self induced social media blackout meant that the cancellation of the race due to the weather had passed us by. All that was left to do was to blame the Sky box.

Twelve months on and it’s 99.99% certain that the race will go ahead, the day after Het Nieuwsblad (which managed to run last year). The spotlight will be on Tom Boonen in his comeback year from injury in 2013 and he will turn out in both races this weekend. Last years winner Luca Paolini goes for Katusha although it’s hard to see last years cat and mouse style finish being repeated. BMC have Thor Hushovd and Greg van Avermaet and could provide tough opposition for Boonen. Also lining up in his first race since leaving Boonen’s Omega Pharma team is IAM cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel has a point to prove this year and another rider to look out for is Garmin’s Nick Nuyens.

Many of the same riders will turn out on Sunday with riders like Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke elevated to team leader status. With last years hiatus the previous winner of the semi-classic was (at the time) a Sky rider, but Mark Cavendish is absent this year. Sky will be led by Edvald Boasson Hagen this year, but the Norwegian will be an outside bet if this race comes down to a sprint. The rider who showed last year that he could adapt to the shorter climbs of the cobbled classics was Andre Griepel and if it it’s in a bunch at the close on Sunday he is the VCSE favourite.

* with apologies to ‘The Sound of Music’

The Cav & Wig Show – VCSE’s Racing Digest #20

Tour of Britain round up

In our last post we discussed then (plain old) Bradley, now Sir Bradley Wiggins performance at last years Tour of Britain. In what should have been a valedictory event for the 2012 Tour de France and Olympic time trial winner, the Sky rider instead abandoned the race at the halfway point after a bizarre performance during which time he turned round and rode back the way he came in search of teammate Mark Cavendish.

Français : Bradley Wiggins, vainqueur du Crité...
Back to his best:  Bradley Wiggins(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wiggins stated aim this season, to win the Giro d’Italia, had looked in doubt from the outset as the Wigan based rider was unable to repeat his imperious form of the previous year and he often struggled to make the top five on GC in his preparation events like the Giro de Trentino. Wiggins hopes in the Giro went down the drain with the heavy rainfall that was such a feature at the event. A seemingly innocuous crash in the first week seemed to damage his confidence and he withdrew before the race finished. Pre Giro there had also been the debate, often fueled by Wiggins, about leadership of the Sky team at this years Tour de France. His performance at the Giro was probably the confirmation that the Sky hierarchy needed that Chris Froome, as well as being more suited to the parcours, was now the number one rider at the team.

And so it was a different Bradley Wiggins that emerged from the aftermath of Team Sky’s celebration of a second successive Tour win, making a low key return a week after the Grand Boucle in the Tour of Poland. He was entered in this event to target the individual time trial stage, pitching himself against one of his chief rivals for the world TT championships. Interviewed in the build up to the race the world’s TT was held up as the now 10kg heavier Wiggins goals for the end of season. And there, quietly in the background, was the announcement that in addition to the individual test, he would lead Sky at this years Tour of Britain and it was a race he intended to win.

There has been some critical mass building to Wiggins performance in last weeks race. His actual race form hadn’t sparkled after winning the stage in Poland, but he was finishing races and becoming a decent interviewee again. It can’t have been easy for Wiggins to admit that the reason he didn’t call Chris Froome to congratulate him in Paris was his fault as he didn’t have his mobile number. Both Wiggins and Sky had kept things low key when commenting on his participation in Poland and the following Eneco Tour, but as far as his home race was concerned the talk was of targeting the GC. Perhaps critically here, in addition to a strong supporting line up including Stannard, Eisel and Lopez, Shane Sutton was back in the fold after early season announcements that he would no longer play an active role in the Sky set up.

The first couple of stages held in typically wet British weather had been a sprinters party, despite an uphill finish on stage 2 in the Lake District. Milan San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek would have been reminded of the weather on the Italian coast earlier this year as he overhauled An Post’s Sam Bennett to win and take over the leaders gold jersey. Sky had kept Wiggins protected and near the front for these stages and there was a suggestion that he was in for the long haul when even he admitted that he “..would have climbed off” because of the conditions if he wasn’t motivated for the overall. Confirmation of this came the following day when Wiggins made several runs around the TT course at Knowsley. Tellingly rival Alex Dowsett, getting over a cold, chose to reconoittre the route from his team car. Dowsett was out of the starting hut before Wiggins, but any contest with his Sky rival was soon made academic as other riders went faster. Wiggins, the only rider to break 20 minutes for the test, was into the lead.

The following day brought the first of three stage wins for Mark Cavendish. Sunday’s misfire of the Omega Pharma sprint train was forgotten as the world tour teams began to impose themselves on the peloton. Another world tour squad were making their presence felt in the other competitions. Movistar’s Angel Madrasso was a permanent fixture in the breaks all week and thanks to an infringement on the final stage was able to claim both the KOM and sprinters prizes. For the smaller teams the pickings were pretty slim. The chance to feature in the break or a bunch sprint was the best that most could hope for. With talk of the ToB moving up to HC status in the future many of the British squads will feel disappointed that they didn’t come away with a better result. There would have been mixed feelings among the 3rd level teams at Simon Yates stage win on Dartmoor. The British U23 squad had appeared the previous year, but Yate’s win following both his and his twin brothers performances in the Tour de Avenir will have put both riders first in the queue for a contract with the world tour squads. The emphasis on shorter criterium style events seems to blunt the opportunity for some of the young riders in the British conti squads to shine.

Despite the bad weather earlier in the week, crowds at this years race if anything seemed even bigger than the year before. Certainly the final stage around central London had a last day of the Tour feel and Cavendish served up the perfect result, winning convincingly. Wiggins was lost in the bunch over the line, but maintained a comfortable lead at the finish. Both riders had demonstrated their respect for the race in interviews all week, Cavendish showing his pride at winning the final stage at his home race and Wiggins describing that there are “ easy stages on the Tour of Britain” earlier in the week. Inevitably, talk is already turning to what will Wiggins do next. The rider is focused on the world championship time trial, what comes next will be interesting. A stated aim is to win another gold medal at the Olympics in 2016. That still leaves at least one season where, perhaps, Wiggins will target another race with ‘history’. Paris Roubaix perhaps?

We will be sharing our fans eye view of the penultimate stage from Epsom to Guildford shortly. Don’t forget to visit our Facebook page where you can bid for a T shirt signed by Tour of Britain legends including Tour de France 2013 stage winner Dan Martin! 

World Championships – Team Time Trial

Omega Pharma successfully defended the TTT title in Florence on Sunday. Sky, denuded of Wiggins due to the ToB still managed to take 3rd place reinforcing their reputation as one of the strongest TTT outfits. Runners up were winners of the TTT at this years Tour Orica Greenedge. The women’s TTT was also defended successfully with Specialized Lululemon taking the win.

No domestic broadcasters are taking the live pictures from the event, so you will need to check out UCI TV for live streaming.

More teams to fold 

In addition to the loss of Vacansoleil it was rumoured over the weekend that second tier French outfit Sojasun would also be folding due to a lack of sponsorship for 2014. VCSE had reported the apparent saving of Euskatel by Fernando Alonso a couple of weeks back, but both parties have officially announced that they were unable to reach agreement on the structure of the team for 2014. Alonso has vowed to build a team from scratch which suggests that he still intends to pursue a world tour licence. However, he is suggesting that this team will not appear until 2015 at the earliest so there will be a lot more Spanish and French riders looking for rides next year. Expect to see a lot of animation from these riders at the worlds and at the Giro di Lombardia as they look to catch the eye of a prospective employer.

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.

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.



Rise of the inflatable sponsorship mushroom – VCSE’s Racing Digest #15

Tour de Pologne 

That this was the seventieth or so edition of the Tour of Poland may have escaped you if you didn’t realise that this is the UCI’s reincarnation of the iron curtain era Peace Race. A Cannondale benefit for the last two years with overall victories for Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser, a lack of interest in defending the crown this time around was visible in the selection of Ivan Basso as team leader. Speaking of faded glories, who was that on the start list? Only Sir Bradley Wiggins making his first appearance since the Giro but hinting at something low key by taking the last of six places in the Sky team.

Bradley Wiggins at the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
Bradley Wiggins in time trial mode (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taking place almost immediately after this years Tour de France there was inevitably an absence of riders from the that race, but this was made up for by the return of the faces from the Giro; Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali and from the distant past of the spring classics, Fabian Cancellara. There was a notable refugee from the Tour present. Christophe Riblon called into the AG2R squad due to injury and missing out on a stack of invitations to the post Tour criteriums that demand the presence of the French hero du jour. The post Tour Crits, essentially exhibition races with pre-ordained outcomes are extremely lucrative for their participants. They do require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator however finely balanced or unpredictable the outcome may appear the star attraction must win.

The UCI are considering their own devices that might ensure their sanctioned races avoid the possibilty that one or two teams can force the outcome of a race. The experiment in Poland was smaller teams of six riders. The VCSE view would be that the idea seemed to work quite well. Some things remained the same; there were the normal politics of who could or couldn’t go in the break. Smaller teams appeared to lessen the amount of time one team could stay on the front and whether by accident or design chasing down a break required cooperation. The need for versatility when choosing six rather than nice riders allowed the all rounders like Riblon and Thor Hushovd who won two stages here to come to the fore.

BMC had a good Tour of Poland following neatly on from their overall at the Tour de Wallonie the week before. Hushovd looked in his best form of this year and may even fancy his chances at the world championships on the strength of this week. Win of the week and not just for BMC was Taylor Phinney’s cheeky late break on stage 4. It was strange to think that this was Phinney’s first professional win.

Did the UCI’s novelties extend the the inflatable sponsors mushrooms (or were they light bulbs) or was this an invention of the race organisers. The same organisers had an interesting approach to on screen information with blink and you’ll miss it time gaps. Perhaps the plan was give the viewer an idea of what it was like without race radios. Keen eyed armchair fans will often see a hire van and a couple of hi viz wearing staffers waiting at the side of the road who will dismantle the races road furniture after the peloton has passed. You had to feel sorry for the students who nabbed a summer job on the Tour of Poland and found that they would be spending their time inflating the many hundreds (thousands?) of sponsors mushrooms that adorned the route. Can’t see them catching on really.

The second rank stage races often throw up the most entertaining and animated races with the smaller teams in Poland adding to the mix and ensuring the yellow leaders jersey changed riders several times. Riblon justified his selection with a stage win and just missed out on the overall by seconds on the final stage time trial. He was demonstrably frustrated with losing the race lead on the final day but with his stage win over a tough profile in Trentino decorating his Alpe d’Huez Tour victory Riblon looks like the real deal. Unlike last years hero Thibaut Pinot, Riblon has form with another Tour stage win in 2010.

Christophe Riblon
Christophe Riblon (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

We have too often found that our new gods have feet of clay this year with riders appearing to hit rich form only to discover later it was illegally enhanced. It’s practically impossible to believe this could be the case with Riblon, a French rider in a French team, with the severe anti doping laws in that country. Unlikely to be a factor in grand tours if nothing else Riblon’s performances cement AG2R’s place as the preeminent French world tour team of 2013. Whatever the expectations of the nation that produced Anquetil and Hinault, the teams probably set their bars lower and Riblon’s recent performances coupled with Carlos Betancur’s in the Giro would certainly be envied by FDJ this year. With the race starting in Italy for two stages it was not surprising to see the Italian based and managed Columbia team make an appearance that was rewarded with a stage win and second place for Darwin Atapuma on stages six and one respectively.

Of the returning Giro protagonists there was little sign early on in the race. VCSE spied Bradley Wiggins popping out the back on stage 1 but what became clear from reports if not the coverage was that he was working hard earlier in the stage in support of Sergio Henao. On stage 5 we actually got the evidence for ourselves, treated to Wiggins riding a massively determined turn that destroyed any hopes that the breakaway could stay ahead. As the race went on it became clear that things were getting tee’d up neatly for Wiggins to have a tilt at the win in the final stage time trial. All of the talk now is of him going for the TT in the world championships. Current title holder Tony Martin was absent but Wiggins put the best part of a minute into Fabian Cancellara and more into third place man Phinney. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief that Wiggins has finally hit form, but for VCSE it’s more important that he looks motivated again. Vincenzo Nibali was very much in training mode, dropped on the climbs and reportedly focusing on the world championships only. For Nibali the Vuelta will be a chance to ride into form for Florence at the end of the season.

The overall? A win for Peter Weening of Orica Green Edge who overcame Riblon’s seconds advantage with the time trailing equivalent of winning ugly. His winning ride lacked any souplesse but was at least effective; he took the victory by 13 seconds.

Omega Pharma for GC? 

As the cycling ‘transfer window’ opens the first team to get riders to put pen to paper was Omega Pharma. The much rumoured move from Sky of Rigoberto Uran has been confirmed and the debate about what kind of team Omega Pharma want to be has re-started.  This has been fuelled further by the (again much trailed) signings of Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw to bolster Mark Cavendish’s lead out train. VCSE’s take would be that Uran will be given more support in the grand tours that Cavendish misses. That said, Uran is probably better able than most to freelance in the mountains and if the plan is to get more Omega Pharma jerseys at the sharp end of the peloton on the climbs it’s probably a good move for team and rider.

On the other end of the scale one of the two world tour teams at risk of not appearing in 2014 Euskatel have told their riders to start looking for new teams. With 25% unemployment in Spain it was inevitable that the team would be at risk of losing their funding and a less than stellar set of results has probably sped up the decision to pull the plug. All the same it’s hard to see a team folding when they could kept afloat for a fraction of the amount that Real Madrid are thinking of paying for one player this summer.

After Katusha were reinstated to the world tour after their CAS appeal earlier in the season losing one team from the world tour would not have been too much of an issue if a second rank team was ready to move up in their place. The team most likely, swiss registered IAM have said they don’t intend to make the jump, perhaps burnt by the fact that Fabian Cancellara has re signed with Trek. If no teams make the jump it means another wild card place for the grand tours and the potential for some of the continental squads to get invitations to the second rank races also. If this means that the default invitations of only Italian or French teams to the Giro and Tour can be avoided it’s probably no bad thing. The loss of Euskatel and possibly Vacansoleil also will be felt hardest by the riders and support staff and their families.

Ride London  

No doubt the organisers of the Ride London professional race would like the event to become a regular fixture on the world tour. Run a couple of hours after the 20,000 rider had begun to cross the finish line in The Mall the was a decent sprinkling of teams including Sky, Cannondale and Garmin. With the BBC showing the start and finish of the race live the ‘big name’ being used to batter the casual viewer into showing interest was Peter Sagan. How the Beeb’s commentators would have loved a Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish to have been on the start list. Cycling gets next to no exposure on the BBC but its a shame that the editorial line is always pitched so low with no opportunity missed to mention the Olympics or someone that viewers may have heard of. In fairness the BBC deserved a ‘Chapeau!’ for showing a decent highlights package of the women’s Crit from Saturday night. Laura Trott continued her rivalry with Hannah Barnes in the sprint finish winning the race to make it all square in head to heads between the two this year.

The men’s race was fairly typical for a bumpy parcours; a breakaway that was never allowed to get so far ahead and a bunch finish. The script wasn’t followed as Sagan rode an anonymous race; the only time he appeared on camera was getting bottles from the team car. The circuits of Leith Hill were also largely processional, with the real digs coming on the single ascent of Box Hill. David Millar’s attempt to get another group across to the break was drowned out by the apathy of his companions. When it came to sprint, Parliment Square proved to be too much of a bottle neck for some teams leaving FDJ, who had shown their jersey in the break all day, to be the best organised for the finish. Arnaud Demare took the win with teammates in close attendance.

The men’s race inspires some international interest in the event. The close links between Ride London and the London Marathon would suggest that the format will continue with a professional event book ending the main event which is the sportive. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who take part in the Marathon it’s hard to see why a ceiling of 20,000 was put on the sportive. With 80,000 applying for a ballot place it does seem strange that more riders aren’t able to take part. Obviously the infrastructure needed to close roads through the capital and the Surrey stockbroker belt costs but given that the Marathon is able to support the ‘fun runner’ element surely something could be done to allow more cyclists of all standards to take part next year. This year everyone was given the same start location with any riders struggling to make the 4.00pm cut off directed onto short cuts back to the capital. Perhaps in true sportive style a shorter route could be incorporated next year.

Final thoughts. How many capital cities dedicate their centre’s to mass participation cycling events and professional road races on the same day? Chapeau to London and the organisers. I expect the sportive will be massively over subscribed when registration opens later this month. Last year the BBC showed an hours highlights programme for the men’s and women’s world championship road races. This in the same year as the first ever British Tour de France win and the Olympics. As the BBC programming closed today they announced that they would be showing this years world championships live. For dedicated fans of the sport the low brow coverage maybe frustrating, but we should all celebrate the increased coverage the sport is now getting on the national broadcaster.

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:

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.

Tour de France 2013 – VCSE’s fans eye view

Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier
Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier

As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.

To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.

As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.

Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier 

Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.

It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.

The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.

The Banette Baguette man
The Banette Baguette man

These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.

All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:

A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.

Free Fabric softener anyone? - The Tour publicity caravan
Free Fabric softener anyone? – The Tour publicity caravan

And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.

At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.

After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*

Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6
Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6

With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.

Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan

Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.

We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.

The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7
The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7

You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.

VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.

*Boasson Hagen was 3rd on GC going into Stage 8

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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